The last week has seen a flurry of media activity surrounding abnormal results and suspensions in pro cycling. After news broke at the end of September that Alberto Contador had been provisionally suspended over a positive test for the drug Clenbuterol, (which aids aerobic performance and weight loss), further details have emerged including the alleged discovery of plasticizers in his blood, which could and I stress ‘could’, be evidence of blood transfusions.
In what will not be remembered as Spanish cycling’s finest month, seven more Spanish cyclists including Spanish stars David Garcia and Ezequiel Mosquera (stage winner and runner up in the Vuelta a Espana) were provisionally suspended for positive tests in what has been described as ‘Shock tactics’ by Spain’s director general for sport, Albert Soler, in an effort to clean up cycling.
What had perhaps once been a relatively simple case of alleged tainted meat, has now turned into a complex situation for Contador. The levels of Clenbuterol found in his blood were not in fact 400 times less than the minimum amount a lab has to be able to detect as was first widely reported – but 40 times less. While still arguably a minimal amount, this is a drug which is not naturally produced and should never be found in an athletes body. Contador claims the source of the Clenbuterol was some Spanish steaks he asked for during the tour, however, the use of Clenbuterol in animals bred for meat has been banned in Europe for some time and the allegations that Spanish beef has been tainted with Clenbuterol have been strenuously denied by meat producers. In 2008 and 2009, of over nineteen thousand Spanish cows tested, none showed Clenbuterol.
One of the latest twists in the story has been a positive test for plasticizers in Contador’s blood which would suggest his blood had been stored in IV bags used for transfusion. However, the German test which gave the positive result has not been validated and is therefore unlikely to be used as scientific evidence. There is also a Spanish test for plasticizers, which has been published and recognised, but the scientists involved have now said the test is not accurate enough to be used to prove someone innocent or guilty, as they have been unable to rule out all variables.
Belgian magazine ‘Humo’ released an article this week with evidence allegedly from a source ‘close to
the Astana team’, suggesting that Contador withdrew blood after the Criterium de Dauphine in June for use at a later date. The same article alleged Contador did this to mask the use of Clenbuterol which he used to lose a final few kilograms of weight without affecting muscle mass. This article prompted an aggressive response from Contador’s legal team, threatening legal action if these unsubstantiated claims continue. Contador has requested a speedy verdict from the UCI regarding the Clenbuterol positive test in an effort to end this speculation which is not only damaging Contador, but also the sport of cycling. It is possible the UCI could release a verdict within a week, and WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency) have said they’re prepared to step in to ensure a speedy resolution.
In what could be seen as a test case, Italian rider Alessandro Colo, who tested positive for Clenbuterol during the Vuelta Mexico in April, has been given a one year ban. This is despite the Italian anti-doping agency CONI deciding that the Clenbuterol was from tainted South American meat (where Clenbuterol use is not outlawed). Colo received a one year ban for accidental ingestion of Clenbuterol, something which must make Contador nervous. As must WADA’s latest press release on the subject, rejecting the tainted meat claims asking Contador to ‘prove it’ and hinting that while the plasticizers test is not sufficiently refined or supported by enough data to be scientifically valid, it may nonetheless be considered.
What was once thought to be an issue over tainted meat has become far more complex and potentially far more damaging to cycling and Contador. It seems likely the information and allegations which have come to light in the last week can only serve to further damage Contador’s reputation. If Contador is banned, what influence have the scientifically unproven plasticizers results had on the UCI’s verdict? Equally, if the tainted meat explanation is accepted, will Contador receive a ban like Alessandro Colo or will he be deemed innocent and not punished? In that eventuality, will the unproven allegations of blood transfusions go away or will they hang over the situation, tainting Contador’s considerable achievements to date and future career? Either way, it must be quite lonely being Alberto Contador at the moment.