Welcome to the Science of Sport, where we bring you the second, third, and fourth level of analysis you will not find anywhere else.

Be it doping in sport, hot topics like Caster Semenya or Oscar Pistorius, or the dehydration myth, we try to translate the science behind sports and sports performance.

Consider a donation if you like what you see here!

Did you know?
We published The Runner's Body in May 2009. With an average 4.4/5 stars on Amazon.com, it has been receiving positive reviews from runners and non-runners alike.

Available for the Kindle and also in the traditional paper back. It will make a great gift for the runners you know, and helps support our work here on The Science of Sport.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Mad Cow award: The UCI, Contador and contaminated beef

Contador, the UCI and the contaminated beef/clenbuterol saga

Yesterday we gave the award for Drug of the Year to methylhexanamine, or DMAA, for its repeat appearances in the latter half of the year, and the interesting debate is stimulates over supplement use.

The unlucky "loser" there was clenbuterol, a drug which rocketed into the news at the end of September when it burst the veneer of a "clean" Tour de France in 2010.  Until that happened, a great Tour de France had seen Alberto Contador triumph over Andy Schleck, and not a sign of a high-profile doping case, at least during the race.  The days of Rasmussen, Ricco, and going further back, Festina, were over...

Until clenbuterol came along.  Or contaminated beef.  Or plasticizers.  Against the backdrop of denial by the UCI.  Whichever you believe.  And for that mass confusion, the Mad Cow award is shared by the UCI, Alberto Contador and the supposedly contaminated beef he put forward as his defence.

Recap of the story

This is actually a story we did cover at the time, and I don't want to rehash all the details here, but rather refer back to the two posts we did on it at the time:
  • Contador tests positive - article includes links to Contador's response (by Douwe de Boer), and the details of the testing and when Contador tested positive.  It describes how the level of Clenbuterol in Contador's blood was so low that very few laboratories in the world would have detected it - as it transpired, the samples were sent to Cologne, which is able to detect levels at least 40 times LOWER than the amount required in order for a test to be declared an "adverse analytical finding". 

    On this note, what is interesting is how few samples were sent to Cologne in the first place.  Most of the Tour samples were sent to Lausanne, except 10 (out of 250).  The Cologne lab is one of the only laboratories able to detect a number of substances at low levels, and so failing to use them when they had the option raises a few interesting questions.  As it transpired, Contador's samples were among the 10 analysed there - this is not surprising given that he'd have been tested as the race leader every day.
  • The transfusion theory, and the possible source of clenbuterol - in the days after the announcement, it was leaked that Contador's blood contained traces of what were called "plasticizers", molecules found in IV bags, and put forward as evidence that a transfusion had been given on the Tour's rest day, immediately preceding the positive samples

The UCI:  Resolving this case internally

The UCI, for their part, once again failed to act in a manner that inspires confidence that they want the sport to be cleaned up.  It transpired that Contador heard of his positive test on August 24, and it took a full month before any result was announced.  Even then, it was announced by Contador's PR team only because the German media were about to break the story, and only then did the UCI announce anything.  Contador was later quoted as saying that he was told to keep quiet about the test:  "The UCI has always asked me not to tell this to anyone".  He was further quoted as saying that "It seemed that everything was in order and that it would be resolved internally".

Given that previous cases of positive results have been announced before the B sample result was even known, this approach smacks of double standards. And I would love to know what "resolved internally" means.  In theory, all cases should be resolved internally, in that both A and B samples should be tested, and then investigated, then sanctions announced if required.  If not, no announcement would ever be made, and the athlete would not be subjected to false accusation.

The "unhealthy attachment" between UCI and its riders
However, that never happens, except for the Tour champion, apparently.  Nor should it, given that the UCI has shown as a willingness to accept money from riders, and what the Independent Observers from WADA identified as an "unhealthy attachment to those competing" in their 2010 Tour report, which you can read here.
The quote is on Page 6: "Indeed, many people on the Tour and even those involved in anti-doping on the Tour have, at times, an unhealthy attachment to those competing, whether it is through personal friendships or just through having been involved in the Tour for a few years".  When that kind of statement comes out in an official report, then it suggests a serious problem.  And, this does not even make mention of money changing hands, but rather personal relationships.  As history has shown many times, money is a far stronger influence than "friendship"...

Given this kind of "internal" relationship, the prospect of the UCI keeping every single case quiet until a final verdict is reached would give me sleepless nights.  Ultimately, it boils down to a complete lack of credibility, and the media have taken on the role of exposing doping.  This is of course the UCI's own doing, courtesy the denials of a doping problem by Pat McQuaid, who is an honorary recipient of this award.  Until sponsors began to jump ship, and the media threatened to stop covering his events, McQuaid ignored the elephant in the room even while it sat on him.  His incentive, of course, is to do create the impression of cleaning up the sport without actually doing it, because to admit the problem means having to fix it, and that's not good for the bottom line.  Especially when its champions are caught.

Or, does "resolved internally" mean the same thing as it has allegedly done for other high profile riders in the past, where backdated therapeutic use exemptions are issued, or recommendations to suspend riders based on biological passport results are allegedly covered up?
The other thing the long delay in announcing the result did is provide Contador with time to prepare the defence, the now infamous contaminated beef theory.  A report by Douwe de Beer, was commissioned by Contador's lawyer the day after he heard the result, and was ready for 'public consumption' by the time the story broke.  It lays out the cases of contamination, which would become Contador's defence.
The battle for perception, and the wait for a verdict
Much of this is a battle for public perception, because the contamination defence is plausible and difficult to disprove in the absence of test results from Contador's Astana team-mates who may have eaten the same meat.  Had this testing been done, the case would be clear cut, either way.

On the opposite side of the 'bench', the prosecution would have to disprove that the beef was contaminated, or find corroborating evidence for either clenbuterol ingestion, or perhaps a transfusion.  The latter possibility emerged when the German media reported on the plasticizers, but that is not an official test and therefore cannot be used in any legal proceedings.  

All this transpired three months ago.  Still, no verdict has been reached, the case remains open, with the Spanish Federation required to reach a decision.
Testing at the 2010 Tour:  Not as comprehensive as you might think

Finally, a word on the testing procedures at the Tour, which you can read in far more detail in this WADA report.  It's important and relevant, because the Contador-Clenbuterol case raises all kinds of questions over the desire of authorities to stamp out doping.

It may therefore amaze you to learn that during the Tour, only 215 blood and 251 urine tests were performed (that's total tests, not riders).  Given that ± 200 riders race over 23 days (including rest days), many riders are not tested even once.  Of the tests, only 70% look for EPO, and only 26 tests for homologous blood transfusions were done (all from page 51 of the report).

Perhaps the most telling paragraph in the entire document is this, from Page 20, which condemns the lack of stringency in analysis type, and calls out the UCI for failing to conduct testing which would significantly tighten the net on dope cheats (emphasis has been added):
With respect to the type of testing conducted it was interesting to note that when the riders were present the UCI did not take full advantage by collecting more sample types. As with any event, there was a variety of analytical screens that could have been identified but the majority of Post-Finish tests were urine tests (usually including EPO analysis) with very few blood samples collected
Based on the nature of the Tour, riders may seek to gain advantage mainly with the use of prohibited substances and/or methods that increase their endurance performance. It was therefore expected by the IO Team that EPO would be the principal substance to look for by the Laboratory. It is noted however that only 70% of the UCI’s analysis were for EPO, and it was outlined that the budget was the main constraint for not doing more EPO testing. Moreover, only a reasonably small number of blood samples were collected for analysis for CERA, HBOC or HBT and it is unknown to the IO Team how many (if any) blood passport samples were later analysed for any of these substances. 
There are also new substances and/or methods that can now be detected or suspected, yet the UCI only sent ten target test samples to the WADA-Accredited Laboratory of the German Sports University, Cologne, for additional analysis for new substances and/or methods. As a way of illustrating this, during the Tour it leaked in the media that the authorities of the country of one of the competing riders had just initiated an investigation against the rider to examine doping allegations. Information which appeared on the media linked the rider with the use of a new drug, which is prohibited in sport. The IO Team did not observe any attempt to target test this rider for the new prohibited substance.
The silver lining

It's not all doom and gloom, of course, and earlier this year, we were very positive about the state of cycling, and wrote of how the reduction in performance in the mountains was a positive sign for doping control efforts.  The 2010 Tour, for the first time in many years, showed signs of improvement, and I have no doubt that doping is now "controlled", greatly reduced from the 1990s and 2000s, where I have even less doubt that it was rampant.

There is a long way to go, of course, but the biological passport, the aggressive scrutiny by the media, the odd cyclist willing to speak out (at the risk of being shunned by the cycling community for violating omerta), and a few honest men in the sport now at least suggest that it can be fixed.  If only the "old boys" would get out of the way, or be removed, we'd have a chance of seeing a clean sport in 2011.  Not likely...but for now, I'll take better.