Contador and the case that was never proved

In this chilly weather we are currently experiencing you may do no worse than to print off the 98 page judgement from the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) on the Alberto Contador doping case and burn it. While it may warm your fingers a bit it will still leave you with a very cold heart.

The lawyers in the case have had to wade through 4,000 pages of evidence, so the final ‘award’ at 98 pages may seem a quick read. However, it contains a lot of repetition, 3 possible reasons as to how Contador had clenbuterol traces in his urine, but no actual explanation as to how it found its way in there.

The background to the case is after the second rest day of the 2010 Tour de France Contador took a routine drugs test. Just four days later Contador was riding into Paris to claim his third Tour de France title. Within two weeks of the Tour ending Contador signs with the Saxo Bank Team for two years starting from 2011. It seems at this stage that Contador can do no wrong. Yet on 23rd August 2010, more than a month since Contador took the test, a Cologne laboratory informs the International Cycling Union (UCI) that Contador’s ‘A’ sample contains a positive result for the banned anabolic agent clenbuterol. The next day the UCI provisionally bans Contador. After requesting that his ‘B’ sample is tested and confirmed positive too, Contador finally makes the news public. This is on 30th Sept 2010, more than two months since the test was taken. Contador immediately blames it on some contaminated meat that he had eaten during the tour.

Once the second sample came back positive Contador should have been dealt with immediately. However, it is not until 26th January 2011 that the Spanish cycling federation (RFEC) proposes a one-year ban for Contador. In an attempt in sweep the whole matter under the carpet the RFEC decide on 15th February 2011 that Contador has no case to answer too, seemly very happy to accept his explanation of eating contaminated steak even if it was Spanish in origin. The next day Contador is on the start line for the Tour of Algarve, ready to start his first competitive race for the season.

So what could just have been at the an embarrassing blip on Contador’s biography then takes another turn. The leniency shown by the RFEC is not accepted by the UCI. Once again though, the UCI decide to wait another month before requesting the case go before CAS. Five days later the Word Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) wake up and realise that if the UCI are troubled by this case, they should be too and also lodge an appeal with CAS.

Once the case is put in the hands of CAS the real stupidity begins. Contador throughout this whole process is not suspended again and carries on competing for his new team, Saxo Bank. WADA put their appeal to CAS on 29th March 2011 and on 20th May CAS confirms that the hearing will take place between 6-8th June. This announcement is made while Contador is racing in the first Grand Tour of the year, the Giro d’Italia. On the 26th May Contador’s legal team request a postponement of the appeal. Just three days later, Contador goes on win his second Giro d’Italia title. CAS allow the case to be delayed until 1-3rd August. Crucially, this allows Contador to defend his Tour de France title. This obviously means as well that by now it will have been over a year since Contador took and failed that urine test. Also crucial to the case is that Contador has never disputed that clenbuterol was found in his urine, just how it got there. So one of best professional road cyclists of his generation is allowed to keep competing and winning while a doping case is awaiting to be heard.

Contador is unable to replicate his performance of the previous year and finishes the Tour de France in fifth place. His exploits in winning the Giro are cited as the reason that he put in a seemingly lacklustre display. Three days after the Tour finishes another request for postponement is put in; this time from WADA. So date is set for 21-24th November is Lausanne and amazingly this time it actually takes place.

With the amount of evidence that is presented to CAS and the length of the case so far, it comes as no surprise that the panel says it will need 6-8 weeks to wade through all the material that has been submitted. Amazingly, in another bizarre twist of events which could have a whole blog devoted to it alone, the verdict is delayed another at least another two weeks amid accusations of bias on the panel.

So the day finally arrives: Monday 6th February 2012. The CAS panel decide Contador is guilty of doping and hand him a ban of two years backdated to 2010. Gone are the wins he was allowed to acquire during that time. Gone are the World Tour points that Contador has earned for Saxo Bank. What remains is one big unanswered question. How did the clenbuterol get into Contador’s system?

The important part of proving Contador’s innocence is the ‘burden of proof’ concept – It is up to Contador to prove his own innocence rather than the UCI or WADA to prove his guilt. Contador has accepted clenbuterol was found in his urine but always stated it was not his fault and there was nothing he could do to prevent it. CAS looked into three possibilities. They concluded that all were possible and yet impossible. Confused? Keep reading.

  1. Contador has always claimed that the clenbuterol entered his system after he ate some contaminated steak.

While the case was being dealt with by the Comité Nacional de Competición y Disciplina Deportiva (CNCDD) of the RFEC they stated when considering the contaminated meat argument that, “The extremely small contamination and the reports submitted by WADA do not rule out that possibility, only considering it unlikely.” It then goes on to say, “…it is considered that the ingestion of contaminated meat is the most probable cause for the adverse analytical finding.” The later statement is based on the fact that the drug tests that Contador took prior to 21st July were negative and the very low concentration of clenbuterol found in the sample would not make it performance enhancing.

It seems the CNCDD do accept Contador’s explanation and even go on say that an athlete’s diet obviously contains meat and even with the best checks in place an athlete cannot know or suspect that the meat they eat is contaminated. No wonder the RFEC were happy to dismiss all charges against their star cyclist. The UCI however don’t accept this and say it is up to Contador to prove that any clenbuterol that has entered his body was through a means that Contador cannot be held responsible for. This seems rather harsh as the evidence has been eaten and obviously that is the basis of Contador’s case.

While traces of the actual piece of meat cannot be retrieved the history of the meat can and also cases of contaminated meat can be looked into. WADA noted that while cases of clenbuterol-contaminated meat have been found these have been in China and Mexico. The use of clenbuterol in livestock is a criminal act in Spain and the European Union. The UCI decide “…that the probability that Mr Contador ate a piece of meat contaminated with clenbuterol is practically zero…”

The scientific evidence against the contaminated meat theory is that despite the very low levels of clenbuterol found in Contador’s sample, an animal would have to have been slaughtered almost immediately after the clenbuterol was administered to have such a quantity of clenbuterol in it.. This would make no sense as the animal would not benefit and the farmer would run the risk of being caught. WADA go on to state quite categorically, “… that the possibility that a given piece of meat bought in Europe is contaminated with clenbuterol is vanishingly thin.”

Since Contador’s entire defence is based around him unwittingly eating contaminated meat a lot of investigation goes in tracking down the origins of this piece of meat. We find out that it is purchased by a friend of Contador’s, a Mr Cerrón, from the Larrezabal butcher in Irún, Spain, during the afternoon of 20th July 2010. Later that day Mr Cerrón takes it to Pau in France where Contador is staying during the Tour de France. Later that evening Contador eats some of the meat with another helping of it served at lunchtime the next day – the day of the test.

WADA though simply cannot accept that there is any possibility that Contador could have eaten contaminated meat. They point to three reasons why they think this is an, ‘extreme unlikelihood’:

1) an analysis of the supply chain of the meat in question; 2) the regulatory framework in Europe and Spain with respect to the use of clenbuterol to fatten livestock; and 3) reports at European, national and regional level, showing the results of the controls carried out on animals for various banned substances (including clenbuterol).”

In his defence, Contador states that the meat he ate would have been one of the 99.98% of meat that was not tested for clenbuterol in 2010. As it was left to Contador to prove the meat he ate was contaminated the provenance of meat is investigated quite thoroughly. This is referred to as the ‘Traceability Report’. As the piece of meat weighed 3.2kg and cost 32 it had to be veal ‘solomillo’. This enabled the meat to be traced to a supplier and the by its ear tags to a slaughter house in Castilla y Léon. Finally, the farmer can be revealed – Lucio Carabias.

In 1996 the brother of Lucio Carabias, Domingo Carabias was implicated and later condemned in 2000 in a clenbuterol case. At one stage both brothers co-managed a farming company. Contador makes the implication that if Lucio’s brother used clenbuterol for fattening his livestock, Lucio is tainted by the association. This suggestion is dismissed by WADA due to the fact that Domingo died in 2010 before the meat was bought and also the previous clenbuterol case was before far stricter European Directives were implemented. To counter this Contador states that this may all be a moot point as there is a possibility that the meat never came from Spain, or indeed Europe, and could have originated from South America. There have been several cases of clenbuterol contamination in Mexico and the athletes involved have been cleared. No proof of this was put forward.

Contador’s ‘guilty by association’ defence did seem to smell a bit of people who throw stones and glasshouses. Contador claimed he had surrounded himself with people who rejected the idea of doping . Yet it was noted this was very far from the truth. He was part of the Once team in 2003 and the Liberty Seguros team from 2003 to 2006. The manager of these teams, Manolo Saiz, was incited on criminal charges relating to the ‘Puerto case’ doping scandal and several of Contador’s former team mates were found guilty of doping violations.

In summing up the this scenario, “…the Panel agrees with the submissions of UCI and WADA that the possibility of a piece of meat being contaminated in the EU cannot entirely be ruled out, but that the probability of this occurring is very low.”

What is not questioned is why Contador’s friend, Mr Cerrón felt the need to go over the border to Spain and buy some meat especially for Contador to eat. The Astana team cook, Mr Olalla, does state that he is the person who cooked both meals containing the meat. It does seem very strange in these times when professional cycling teams employ all manner of nutritionists and dieticians that food should be brought in from an outside source during the most important race in cycling. A possible explanation for this is that Contador deliberately doped and in order to explain the resultant clenbuterol traces he would blame it on what was actually an innocence piece of meat.

  1. Contador has a blood transfusion and the blood is contaminated with clenbuterol.

This possibility is put forward due to the low concentration of clenbuterol found and also because, “an extremely high concentration of phthalates (additives used to make plastic products such as bags for storing blood and blood components)…” were found in Contador’s urine sample on 20th July 2010 – the day before the failed clenbuterol test. Such a high concentration is deemed to be consistent with the levels found after a blood transfusion.

The blood doping theory is strengthen by the analysis of Contador’s blood parameters between 2005 and 2010. During the 2010 Tour de France Contador’s reticulocyte values were atypical and not what would have been expected. Also higher than normal was Contador’s haemoglobin concentration while compared with previous years. Although it could not be proved that this means the clenbuterol came into Contador’s system through a blood transfusion it is a pretty good indicator of it.

The UCI and WADA prefer this explanation that Contador deliberately undertook a transfusion of red blood cells on 20 July 2011 and then injected clenbuterol contaminated plasma the next day to try maintain a natural blood profile and mask the previous day’s transfusion. Since this procedure has been used several times by cyclists and Contador was living and working in an such an environment, it is likely he could be part of it. Tests carried out on Contador’s blood parameters show that while the tests showed ‘atypical’ results in comparison to previous results, this does not prove the blood doping theory. It does make it likely but not conclusive.

With regard to the blood doping explanation the Panel concludes, “…that neither UCI nor WADA were apparently confident enough to bring a doping charge against the Athlete based directly on their allegation of a blood transfusion…the Panel finds that although the blood transfusion theory is a possible explanation for the adverse analytical finding, in light of all the vidence adduced and as explained above, it is very unlikely to have occurred.” So two down, one to go.

  1. Contador took a permitted but contaminated food supplement.

Contador does state that he took food supplements along with the rest of his Astana team. However, it is noted that no other of Contador’s team mates tested positive for clenbuterol. Also food supplements were taken by riders in 2011 and no further positive tests were found in relation to this. The manufacturers of the supplements have not been implicated in any contamination cases and also rather crucially do not use or store clenbuterol in their warehouses. Contador also does not investigate this as a means of ingestion. It seems this theory is a complete non-starter from the beginning.

WADA put forward this theory after a previous case involving the American athlete Jessica Hardy. Despite only taking supplements from an established supplier, Hardy tested positive for clenbuterol. It was established that the supplements were the source and Hardy was cleared. While WADA is happy to put forward this notion Contador dismisses it and makes several points as to why the clenbuterol could not have been ingested via food supplements. None of the other Astana riders taking the supplements tested positive in either 2010 or 2011 and Astana did not use the same company as the one that Jessica Hardy did. In addition to this Contador asked each of the six manufacturers who all confirmed that they did not use or store clenbuterol; never been blamed for a positive drug test and all carried out external independent testing of their products to verify their contents. This is countered by the accusation that Contador in fact deliberately took another supplement which he has never declared because by doing so he would find it hard to prove this innocence through ignorance in this situation.

The Panel in weighing up the three possible reasons state, “…it finds that, in light of all the evidence on record, the Athlete’s positive test for clenbuterol is more likely to have been caused by the ingestion of a contaminated food supplement than by a blood transfusion or the ingestion of contaminated meat. This does not mean that the Panel is convinced beyond reasonable doubt that this scenario of ingestion of a contaminated food supplement actually happened.”

So three possible explanations, all could have occurred, all may not have happened and overall no actual finding of how clenbuterol found its way into Contador’s body. As clenbuterol is not naturally produced by the human body it is classed as a ‘non-threshold prohibited substance’. This means that any traces found constitute an anti-doping violation. The amount found in Contador’s sample was so small that it would have had no effect on him performance wise but this is deemed irrelevant. CAS upheld the case brought by the UCI and WADA and imposed a two-year ban on Contador and disqualified his 2010 win in the Tour de France and any results he gained after 25th January 2011.

After the announcement of the Panel’s judgement the UCI issued a short press statement which ended in it saying that the UCI would make no further comment on the situation. So at the conclusion of the most high profile doping case involving a current rider the UCI simply wants to forget about it. Forget that contaminated meat could be in circulation in Europe, forget that food supplements could be contaminated, and most importantly forget that blood doping could still be in force in cycling. Riders rarely dope alone and in blood doping it is neigh impossible. However, Contador has been hung out to dry. Whether he was the innocence victim of a piece of dodgy meat or a cold and calculating doper we will probably never know.

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