October 1, 2010 12 Comments
Yesterday we heard Alberto Contador‘s side of the story regarding his provisional suspension after traces of clenbuterol were found in one of his urine samples given at the Tour de France on July 21st. Expert testimony was presented on his behalf by Douwe de Boer, a Dutch anti-doping expert. However, since then new evidence has emerged to cast a shadow of doubt on Contador’s explanation, raising the dark possibility of an unsavoury conspiracy between the rider and the UCI.
At the time, the three-time Tour winner’s explanation – that he had eaten some contaminated beef, accounting for the trace amounts of the drug in his sample – seemed plausible, if perhaps not entirely credible. (See my posts yesterday here and here.)
Clenbuterol has been used in livestock to reduce fat content and render meat more lean for human consumption. However, it also has a number of known detrimental side-effects – including at least two reported cases of widespread food poisoning in China – and has consequently been banned in the USA and Europe from use in animals which might enter the food chain. In theory, because Contador’s meat originated from Spain, it should not have been possible for it to contain clenbuterol, unless it was introduced illegally.
What is more disturbing are new claims which raise the possibility that the Spaniard may have been engaging in autologous blood doping, a practice which involves drawing off a sample of an athlete’s own blood, which is then frozen and subsequently transfused back into their bloodstream during competition, boosting red blood cell count and therefore the body’s ability to transport and process oxygen. Such a process can have a significant performance-enhancing effect, and has long been illegal.
L’Équipe is claiming that tests designed to detect specific materials used in blood bags uncovered traces in Contador’s urine sample, raising the possibility of a blood transfusion. However, the test has not yet been ratified by the global anti-doping authority WADA, and may therefore not be admissible as evidence.
In addition, award-winning German sports journalist Hans Joachim Seppelt told TV station ARD that he had contacted UCI president Pat McQuaid, who denied there was any investigation into Contador just hours before his press agent went public with the story. Seppelt claimed the UCI was deliberately stalling:
The UCI has had many problems with credibility in the last few years, like in the case of Lance Armstrong. [In Contador's case] the A and B sample were already taken, the procedure was done and still the public wasn’t informed. It appears they want to keep this case under the covers or give Alberto Contador the opportunity to find arguments for his innocence. This should not happen. To me it appears to be a cartel from those who want to conceal.
He also stated that data he had seen not only contradicted Contador’s suggestion of contaminated meat – in line with the L’Équipe story - but also supported the hypothesis that he had received blood transfusions:
In Europe, it is highly unlikely that foods, such as meat, are contaminated with clenbuterol. It happens in Asian countries, but it is strictly prohibited in Europe. Also, there were no other positive test cases with contaminated meat, so the statement from Contador is not credible.
There are other, very, very incriminating suspicious facts against Contador. Other values have appeared that are ten times over the higher value from so-called plasticizers which are used in blood bags. These values were measured one day [i.e. July 20th] before the positive dope control. These blood bag softener values could indicate that autologous blood doping may have been performed.
The UCI completely kept this under the covers. They didn’t say anything to this yesterday. Again the question about the credibility of the UCI comes up.
Finally, he raised serious questions about the credibility of the UCI:
If the other incriminating factors are added, if potential autologous blood doping was used and if it can be proved, then there is the question if Alberto Contador can keep his yellow jersey. I am pretty certain that just like Floyd Landis, the title will be taken away from him in the foreseeable future. It is not only the Tour winner who looks to stand in a shady light, but especially the UCI, which couldn’t prove its credibility.
I think the UCI has a problem and a president who lies. He clearly stated that there is no doping case, only to say the opposite the next day.
Seppelt has not provided details of his sources and both his and L’Équipe‘s claims are not watertight – if the plasiticizer showed up in Contador’s sample from July 20th, why did it not also register clenbuterol? – but it certainly throws discussion of the case into a new light, and also provides a plausible explanation as to one of the most curious aspects of yesterday’s announcements, namely its timing. Why go public more than five weeks after the initial test results were known, and yet too soon to provide any definitive conclusions – and right in the middle of the UCI’s Road World Championships? But if ARD and/or L’Équipe were about to publish their stories, it would have forced Contador and the UCI’s hand to take pre-emptive action in an attempt to control the media agenda.
Piecing together the various allegations, if Contador had been engaging in blood doping the chain of events – and I cannot stress enough that this is a notional timeline – would have been something like this:
March/April: Participates in major Spring races including Paris-Nice and Flèche Wallonne.
May: Misses the Giro d’Italia to focus on training. Clenbuterol is administered to improve aerobic capacity and reduce body fat. At this point, samples of blood containing clenbuterol, are extracted and frozen for later use.
June: Returns to action.
July 19: Takes over the yellow jersey from Andy Schleck. As race leader, he is automatically required to give a sample.
July 20: Another sample provided, which registers the presence of plasticizers used in blood bags.
July 21: Rest day, on which he is tested again. At some point on either this or the previous day, he receives a transfusion of the blood taken in May. The vast majority of the clenbuterol has degraded but unbeknownst to those involved – possibly a miscalculation? – a tiny trace still remains. Even then, it is at a concentration 40 times lower than accredited labs are required to detect, and might well have escaped attention had it been tested anywhere other than the sophisticated facility at Cologne.
August 24: Contador is informed of the positive test by the UCI. Work begins to build a credible defence.
September 30: Over five weeks later, in reaction to the danger of ARD/L’Équipe breaking the story about both the clenbuterol and plasticizer tests themselves, the clenbuterol test result is made public and Contador is provisionally suspended by the UCI. No mention is made of the plasticizers.
At this stage – and again, I cannot emphasise this enough – all the above is clearly no more than allegation and supposition, but it does appear the pendulum has swung back the other way since Contador’s protestations of innocence yesterday afternoon. No doubt we will soon see equally compelling counter-arguments rubbishing Seppelt and L’Équipe‘s claims. And ultimately, it appears no action can be taken regarding the plastcizer test if it is not WADA-ratified, so any sanction will depend on the outcome of the clenbuterol investigation.
Right here right now, who knows what to think? All we can hope for is that the truth will eventually come out and that Contador is proven to be either demonstrably innocent or … well, I don’t really want to consider what the implications of the alternative are for both the rider, the governing body and the sport itself, thanks. I suspect we will be ‘treated’ to further revelations in the coming days and weeks which move us further from a position of black-and-white into the uncertain and murky shades of grey in which the facts become increasingly obfuscated by a deluge of argument and counter-argument.
Regardless, it now appears the dark cloud hanging over cycling will not dissipate any time soon. And the dual insinuation that the finest rider of the current generation and the sport’s governing body may have been implicit in a sordid cover-up should be a worrying one, not just for fans of cycling but all sports. If such Machiavellian machinations can occur in one major sport, then none can be considered above suspicion.