When I was new to following professional cycling, I thought this was a load of rubbish; surely the doping agency could work out the difference. Well maybe not…….
At the end of April 2014, former world time trial champion, an Olympic bronze medalist, Michael Rogers was cleared of his doping as the UCI accepted that meat he ate in China probably caused his positive doping test. The rider had raced last October in China, where clenbuterol is widely administered to livestock to build muscle and reduce fat, then testing positive in Japan a few days later.
The UCI statement was as follows:
“Upon careful analysis of Mr. Rogers’s explanations and the accompanying technical reports the UCI found that there was a significant probability that the presence of clenbuterol may have resulted from the consumption of contaminated meat from China,”
For some, this may be another example of cyclists finding excuses & the bad doping culture continues in the sport – and perhaps we can include other high profile cases such as 3 x Tour de France winner Alberto Contandor, who had his 2010 Tour & 2011 Giro victory scrapped from the record books from what he claimed was failed tests due to contaminated meat. On that point, a report prepared by Dr. Douwe de Boer, an anti-doping expert, stated that the level detected in Contador was lower (50pg/ml) than what is required for detection by WADA (2ng/ml) – known as the Minimum Required Performance Level (MRPL) – but because it is not a stimulants, narcotic or B-blocker (which are not reported when values are below 10% of the MRPL) it is mentioned. Of course the rider’s scientific adviser claimed that he would have needed 180 times the amount detected to gain any benefit in his performance . A good summary of the case can be found at www.sportscientists.com.
The scientific literature, as described Yonamine et al (2004) review, several studies have been performed to investigate the possibility of an accidental exposure to detectable levels of banned substances in urine sample – and we are talking everything from passive inhalation of drug smoke (eg. marijuana) or in food or through products sold as nutritional supplements. However analytical methods are still ‘incapable of distinguishing between a sample from a cheater & one from an athlete who was passively exposed to a doping agent’. Interestingly Midio et al (2001) raised the possibility of hair analysis for determination of involuntary doping in sports; noting that despite the fact the technique couldn’t be used for routine control or to necessarily overrule positives in urinalysis, it could still detect long term exposure. Currently the International Olympic Committee code doesn’t consider the use of hair analysis even in special cases of doping control, such as the disputed cases like contaminated meat.
So what evidence is there for a rider to mistakenly dope through contaminated meat?
It has been identified for several years that meat in China & Mexico was a risk for athletes, indeed in 2011 FIFA found that players from 19 of the 24 teams at the Under-17 World Cup (played in Mexico) tested positive for the substances (a scale of doping that would even put cycling’s past to shame). The 2012 paper from Guddat et al – ‘Clenbuterol – regional food contamination a possible source for inadvertent doping in sports’ – described how the sympathomimetic and anabolic agent, clenbuterol, has been frequently reported in professional sport with its connection with the livestock industry. When testing a team of athletes in competition in China (2010) the researchers found that all urine samples contained low amounts (pg/ml) of clenbuterol. In the build up to the London 2012 Olympics, the Chinese Olympic officials even banned their own athletes from eating outside after the International Judo Federation banned their athlete, Tong Wen.
Alongside Rodgers, Belgium’s Jonathan Breyne also tested positive after his Tour of Taihu Lake in China (November 5, 2013) which lead to Orica-GreenEdge’s Sport Director Matt White raising concerns over any WorldTour teams competing in future Asian races. Anyone that knows a little bit of background on Matt White will know he got sacked as national coach for Cycling Australia in 2012 because of his use of performance-enhancing drugs, but arguably raising these points helps in the fair fight on doping – fair play; so take note.
WADA recognizes the issue with Clenbuterol and this year announced further funding into testing research. In fact the Director General David Howman told Cycling Weekly that “We’ve got that under the radar and we are conducting several research projects to see where we can get to a situation where clenbuterol, if detected in a sample, can be shown to be taken through food or not”. As pointed out by Thevis et al (2013) “Does the analysis of the enantiomeric composition of clenbuterol in human urine enable the differentiation of illicit clenbuterol administration from food contamination in sports drug testing?” it is presently inconclusive to prove whether the clenbuterol was inadvertently ingested.
So as my younger self was guilty of in the case of Contador, don’t jump to conclusions; doping is a very complicated subject.
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