Cycling Champion Fails Drug Test, Claims 'Food Contamination'

Alberto Contador tested positive--for a drug normally taken for asthma

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It's another bad story for cycling, this time involving three-time Tour de France winner Alberto Contador. A sample taken July 21, a rest day in the Tour, reportedly tested positive for clenbuterol, a "banned substance." Contador says it must be a case of "food contamination," mentioning some "bad meat" he and his teammates consumed. If that sounds weird to you, you're not alone. Technically the governing body hasn't reached a decision yet on what exactly happened here. But it turns out there's very little that's not weird about this case--including the drug found in his sample.

  • Strange Timing  "What makes it all sound even worse is that he's known since late August and only now is he planning to schedule a press conference to discuss his side of the story," notes Americablog's Chris Ryan. "No matter how you look at it, it doesn't sound positive for what used to be a great sport."

  • He Athsma Drug?  Amateur cyclist Wade Wallace at Cycling Tips is perplexed. "People with breathing disorders such as asthma use this as a bronchodilator to make breathing easier. A good friend of mine who is a medical doctor tells me it's basically 'a poor man's adrenaline,'" and has "the identical chemical make-up to Ventolin," a familiar name for those with breathing disorders. Wallace muses that "it sounds like a drug that would be good for a bike racer," but not one that a racer would be "dumb enough to take ... It's a drug that's easy to test for. And why would he take this on a rest day?" Then again, he continues, the tainted meat explanation makes very little sense, too: "wouldn't Astana [Contador's team] have their own personal chef?" And why haven't we heard about other teammates testing positive? Decides Wallace: "Whatever the result is, this is another bad strike for cycling at a time that couldn't be much worse." He adds, too, that "the [International Cycling Union] needs to have better control over how information like this is released before a final decision is made."
  • A Specialist Weighing In  Ross Tucker, with a Ph.D. in Exercise Science and Sports Medicine Research, does his thing at The Science of Sport. "The first thing that jumps out at me," he says, "as has been the case for most of the people spoken to, is the incredibly low concentration." It could easily have been missed, in fact, and for other drugs it would be considered too low to report. "Then there's the impact it would have on performance--almost none, and given how advanced doping practices are, it seems a foolish risk to take this particular substance." He notes, though, that foolish risks have certainly been taken in the past. Also, clenbuterol isn't something that gets into one's system normally. If it was a case of bad meat--Tucker adds that, "based on the report, it has happened before, to the point of poisoning"--then it's time for cyclists to determine what is and is not an acceptable level of clenbuterol. Tucker also proposes an alternative explanation:
The final possibility ... is that the clenbuterol was taken many months ago (for either weight loss or to increase lean mass), then Contador's blood was drawn, frozen, and the clenbuterol found its way into Contador's body during the Tour as a result of the re-infusion of that stored blood.  This is what many alleged happened in the case of Landis and the testosterone.  It's certainly possible.  There are some questions, however.  One is whether clenbuterol 'survives' in stored, frozen blood for months. ... The transfusion explanation is certainly looking more and more likely, at least as the main counter-argument to the contaminated food theory.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.