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Friday, February 04, 2011

Two doping cases: Exonerated vs punished. Fair or foul?

Springbok rugby players and a cycling champion: Why some are exonerated fairly and others punished unfairly

Yesterday, a reader sent me a link for an article from the Telegraph newspaper, titled "Rugby Union players are exonerated while cyclists take the blame.  How is that fair?"  Ordinarily, articles from the Telegraph are thought-provoking, accurate and praise-worthy.  This was not one of them.

The article concerns the recent one-year suspension handed to Alberto Contador, and the exoneration of two Springbok rugby players, Chiliboy Ralepele and Bjorn Basson, for a failed doping control in November last year.  It asks how one can be suspended for a year, while the others are exonerated with no blame at all.  The conclusion of the article is that rugby is in denial about its doping problem, while cycling is taking the fight to doping (as I said, the writer, Brendan Gallagher, clearly doesn't follow cycling very closely...).

As an aside, isn't it curious that not a single cyclist who has ever spoken out about doping, or made a confession, or blown the whistle, has been welcomed by the UCI?  Every single one of them is a bitter, malicious liar.  One would think that a sport serious to clean up, taking the fight to dopers, would pay attention to the confessions of its own riders...

However, the issue and the question raised by the journalist, who needed to do some homework on both cases before painting the rugby players with the same brush as Contador, still invites some interesting debate.  How is the exoneration of the players in one case fair, while the 1-year suspension in another case is being criticized as too lenient?  It boils down to the science, the law and also the issue of full responsibility of the athletes for doping.  Here are the 'facts' (as much as one can use that word in the anti-doping argument!)

Same defence, but with big differences

The biggest error (the fundamental error, in effect), comes at the outset of the article, when Gallagher writes "Their defences are essentially the same".

Perhaps to an outsider who has done little to peel away the first reaction to a positive drugs tests, the defences are the same.  But once you look a little more closely, then you that see a great deal was different.  And those differences make for an interesting talking point in the anti-doping battle.

Let's recap - 2010 brought two "surprise" positive doping tests.  First Alberto Contador, cycling's current champion, was informed of a positive test for clenbuterol, a beta-2-agonist.  His samples in the Tour de France contained minuscule amounts of the drug, but that was irrelevant - it's not a threshold drug, which means that unlike testosterone, it doesn't need to be present in a specific amount to constitute doping.  ANY clenbuterol is a failed dope test.

The two South African rugby players, Chiliboy Ralepele and Bjorn Basson, were tested after South Africa's match against Wales in November.  In their case, it was methylhexanamine, a banned stimulant, and also a drug whose presence is a positive test, regardless of its level.  So far, the cases are similar.

The initial reaction:  It got in by accident

The initial reaction was also similar.  For Contador, the issue seems to have been swept under the carpet for as long as possible, and only a tenacious media forced Contador into a statement.  That statement, I guess predictably, was along the lines of "I am innocent, this has been a mistake, I will fight to clear my name".  In no time (perhaps thanks to the forewarning provided by the virtuous and kind UCI, who are serious about doping control), Contador had his defence prepared - contaminated beef.  A legal document by Douwe de Boer was released, giving examples of the same thing in previous cases.  The Spanish farming community didn't buy it, and of course, Contador's cow was long gone, but his defence essentially argued that he was a victim of contamination.

For South Africa's rugby players, the reaction was similar - surprise and strong denial of cheating.  In this case, the fact that it was a stimulant that had already been responsible for dozens of positive results in 2010 was a clue to where the source might have been - contaminated supplements.  And so the focus was immediately placed on all the team's supplements and medical products.

Also, the substance, methylhexanamine, had been identified as a problem drug, and was to be reclassified as a "specified substance" by WADA, which was essentially an admission that this drug could easily be taken inadvertently.

That realization is the first difference - no such recognition exists for clenbuterol.

Finding the contaminant - the vital difference

The second and most important difference is that on hearing of the rugby positives, SA Rugby called for all supplements and medicines to be returned to South Africa immediately.  Here, they were tested, and sure enough, methylhexanamine was found in a USN supplement that the players had been using.  But there's more - that supplement had been declared "safe" by the manufacturer, who gave assurances of quality control and a certificate that 'guaranteed' that it did not contain any banned substances.

The point is that the rugby players took every precaution - they not only used a supplement that wasn't supposed to contain banned supplements, they also did as much as could be done to ensure that contamination was not possible.  The fact that it was, is an indictment on the supplement industry, for whom "quality control" is non-existent (at least, in SA), and not on the players.

In the cycling case, to quote Bonnie Ford, "Contador's cow has gone off to greener pastures".  Therefore, there was no way to prove the source.  Instead, all the evidence pointed at how UNLIKELY it was for the clenbuterol to come from contaminated Spanish beef.  Certainly, the farming community were none too pleased with the accusation.  Add to this the fact that an expert from Montreal suggested that the low levels in Contador's system are in keeping with how the drug is used for doping, and not what is seen in contamination cases, and you have a defence that is stretching the realms of possibility.  Indeed, even in Contador's own defence report, the previous cases of clenbuterol contamination were usually "poisonings" that caused some nasty side effects with very high levels of clenbuterol in the body.

And then finally, not a single team-mate tested positive for the same thing.  Not too surprising, of course, since they didn't all eat it and weren't tested like Contador was.  Had an Astana team-mate been tested, it might have made a massive difference to his defence.  That was true for the rugby players - the way professional rugby works, two players per team are chosen for doping control at each match, and the fact that the chosen two (out of 22) were positive for the same substance actually strengthens the case that they were taking something inadvertently.  I dare say many others might have been tested positive had they been picked out.

The media here in South Africa were quick to condemn the doping problem, and the players were labeled as cheats.  One prominent anti-doping figure in SA proclaimed that they should receive two-year bans instantly, then quickly back-pedalled when it became quite clear that the team, and the players, had done everything possible to avoid ingesting a stimulant, but had been let down by the system.

The fact that the supplement could so easily be identified meant their defence was credible.  Contador's meanwhile, was unprovable and only marginally plausible.  Again, to quote Bonnie Ford, "There's no out clause saying you get a reduced suspension just because no one can figure out precisely how the substance got into your body."

Why the reliance on the smoking gun is futile in the anti-doping battle

The end result is that exoneration was 100% correct.  That's not to say that rugby doesn't have a doping problem.  I'm convinced it does, and I am sure that it exists right down to the school boy level.  But to suggest double-standards based on this case is a failure of common sense, and also ignorance of the law.  The law allows for leniency or pardons when the athlete can prove (and finding a tub of powder that contains the stimulant despite a certificate that says it doesn't is strong proof) that they didn't cheat. Failing to prove it, the law allows for a 2-year ban.  Not a "proposal" for a one-year suspension.

So Gallagher and the Telegraph should be saving their ire and criticism for cycling, who from afar seem to be doing what they can to stamp out their doping problem ("What doping problem?", ask the UCI).  But as I have maintained for a while, the media, the sponsors, some teams, and independent experts and agencies are the ones driving the 'crusade' to clean up the sport, and the UCI, much against their will, are being dragged along with it.

The continued search for the "smoking gun":  Rather bury your head in the sand

The final interesting aspect of the rugby vs cycling case debate is that doping control is becoming less and less about the "magical" drugs tests and doping controls after races or matches, and more and more an accumulation of evidence that is presented before a judge or jury, the way any other court proceeding is handled.  Right now, for example, many of the biological passport cases are being heard, and both sides are using experts who present why a cyclist should or should not be sanctioned based on their blood profiles.  That kind of court case is the future of anti-doping, because as we have seen, a positive test is rarely simply accepted, and a negative test means, well, next to nothing.

This is why when people jump to the defence of an athlete saying "they never tested positive", they are showing deliberate ignorance of the reality of anti-doping, which is that we cannot rely simply on a test and the insistence that we'll find a smoking gun.  As mentioned before, doping somehow requires that this smoking gun, a video of the 'crime' and a confession exist in order for people to finally admit, "Yes, that athlete doped".  People are sentenced on far less than this outside of doping, and that's the direction anti-doping is going, and must go in order to make inroads against what seems to be a massive, systemic problem (at UCI level, team level, and if history and the SI article are believed, national level.

Look at ALL the evidence, and sometimes, you'll find that players should be fully exonerated (even apologized to) despite failing a doping test.  Other times, athletes should be found guilty and banned despite never failing a test.  Common sense, some would call it...