Back in January I reported on the latest ongoings in the world of performance-enhancing drugs. In brief, the story centered around a Spanish cyclist who tested positive for a banned substance and defended himself by claiming that he ate contaminated beef.
That cyclist, Alberto Contador, maintained his innocence before the Spanish federation’s disciplinary committee last month. And they bought his story.
Now the International Cycling Union (ICU) and World Anti-Doping Agency can appeal that decision to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), an international arbitration body that settles sports-related disputes. The CAS was established as part of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 1984 and has seen the contaminated food defense on several occasions. The odds appear to be heavily stacked against a decision in Contador’s favor. In fact, no international sports panel has ever accepted a contaminated-food defense. This decision consistency reflects the international system of strict liability, a policy which Arne Ljungqvist, chairman of the IOC’s medical committee and VP of the WADA, insists must remain at the foundation of deliberations.
The drug at issue here is clenbuterol, an anabolic agent that builds up muscle and burns fat. Farmers also use the drug illegally to bulk up livestock. In any event, it is a banned substance. And as the drug policy requires, if any is found in an athlete’s system, he or she is immediately suspended–no questions asked.
Some athletes have long and successful careers before clenbuterol shows up in a test. One of China’s most decorated martial artists, Tong Wen, won seven gold medals–including the 2008 Beijing Olympics–before she tested positive for clenbuterol in May 2010. She was promptly handed a two-year ban by the International Judo Federation and forced to give back the gold medal she won at the 2009 World Championships. Her coach Wu Weifing defended that she was innocent “because a player at her level doesn’t need to take this kind of drug.” He made a good point–especially in light of Tong’s 100+ clean drug tests. Tong’s legal team planned an appeal based on the contaminated-food defense. That appeal was never heard, that is, not entirely.
The CAS overturned Tong’s suspension just over a week ago due to a “procedural failure” in the lab tests. Apparently, Tong’s backup “B” sample was tested without her knowledge or consent, which voided any chance for the CAS to confirm her positive test results. Though Tong has not been exonerated, she now plans to defend her gold medal at the 2012 London Olympics. If only Contador was as lucky–which was more likely than one might think.
The WADA testing facility in Cologne, Germany that mishandled Tong’s “B” sample is the same exact lab that tested Alberto Contador’s urine samples last year and found clenbuterol. 2 cyclists, 2 positive clenbuterol tests, 2 contaminated-beef defenses. Tong planned to defend that she ate contaminated beef in China. Contador defends that he ate contaminated beef in Spain. Problem is, clenbuterol is banned in the European Union. As a result, the risk of Contador having consumed clenbuterol-contaminated meat in Spain is slim. The conundrum begs the question. If farmers are illegally pumping up cattle with substances that are banned, how can we hold athletes that test positive strictly liable?
Follow me on the logic chain: (1) it’s common for cattle farmers to pump up livestock with hormones and other banned substances, and (2) it’s quite common for athletes to be exposed to potentially contaminated meat from said livestock; yet (3) it’s not okay (absolute zero tolerance) for any banned substance to show up in an athlete’s drug test. Confused? Me, too.
Despite his recent victory in the Spanish courts, Contador has considered retirement. Even still he adds, “if I can ride I’ll ride.” The man was born to compete. And regardless of how his court battle turns out, the international attention should entice the drug enforcement bodies to reconsider their strict liability policy. The tests claim they can find anything. If that’s the case, then perhaps beyond sports and competitive human nature, such tests are uncovering something more important. Humans are constantly at the mercy of their resources. If we are pumping up livestock with chemicals, how can anyone not expect those chemicals to become deep-rooted parts of our bodies?
I’m okay with athletes can’t intentionally take performance-enhancing drugs. I’m not okay with athletes are responsible for every chemical in the meat they eat. It’s time for the WADA and CAS to do away with strict liability. Logical? I think so.