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Experts suggest Contador’s ‘contaminated beef’ defence may be a load of bull

Yesterday we heard Alberto Contador‘s side of the story regarding his provisional suspension after traces of clenbuterol were found in one of his urine samples given at the Tour de France on July 21st. Expert testimony was presented on his behalf by Douwe de Boer, a Dutch anti-doping expert. However, since then new evidence has emerged to cast a shadow of doubt on Contador’s explanation, raising the dark possibility of an unsavoury conspiracy between the rider and the UCI.

At the time, the three-time Tour winner’s explanation – that he had eaten some contaminated beef, accounting for the trace amounts of the drug in his sample – seemed plausible, if perhaps not entirely credible. (See my posts yesterday here and here.)

Clenbuterol has been used in livestock to reduce fat content and render meat more lean for human consumption. However, it also has a number of known detrimental side-effects – including at least two reported cases of widespread food poisoning in China – and has consequently been banned in the USA and Europe from use in animals which might enter the food chain. In theory, because Contador’s meat originated from Spain, it should not have been possible for it to contain clenbuterol, unless it was introduced illegally.

What is more disturbing are new claims which raise the possibility that the Spaniard may have been engaging in autologous blood doping, a practice which involves drawing off a sample of an athlete’s own blood, which is then frozen and subsequently transfused back into their bloodstream during competition, boosting red blood cell count and therefore the body’s ability to transport and process oxygen. Such a process can have a significant performance-enhancing effect, and has long been illegal.

L’Équipe is claiming that tests designed to detect specific materials used in blood bags uncovered traces in Contador’s urine sample, raising the possibility of a blood transfusion. However, the test has not yet been ratified by the global anti-doping authority WADA, and may therefore not be admissible as evidence.

In addition, award-winning German sports journalist Hans Joachim Seppelt told TV station ARD that he had contacted UCI president Pat McQuaid, who denied there was any investigation into Contador just hours before his press agent went public with the story. Seppelt claimed the UCI was deliberately stalling:

The UCI has had many problems with credibility in the last few years, like in the case of Lance Armstrong. [In Contador’s case] the A and B sample were already taken, the procedure was done and still the public wasn’t informed. It appears they want to keep this case under the covers or give Alberto Contador the opportunity to find arguments for his innocence. This should not happen. To me it appears to be a cartel from those who want to conceal.

He also stated that data he had seen not only contradicted Contador’s suggestion of contaminated meat – in line with the L’Équipe story – but also supported the hypothesis that he had received blood transfusions:

In Europe, it is highly unlikely that foods, such as meat, are contaminated with clenbuterol. It happens in Asian countries, but it is strictly prohibited in Europe. Also, there were no other positive test cases with contaminated meat, so the statement from Contador is not credible.

There are other, very, very incriminating suspicious facts against Contador. Other values have appeared that are ten times over the higher value from so-called plasticizers which are used in blood bags. These values were measured one day [i.e. July 20th] before the positive dope control. These blood bag softener values could indicate that autologous blood doping may have been performed.

The UCI completely kept this under the covers. They didn’t say anything to this yesterday. Again the question about the credibility of the UCI comes up.

Finally, he raised serious questions about the credibility of the UCI:

If the other incriminating factors are added, if potential autologous blood doping was used and if it can be proved, then there is the question if Alberto Contador can keep his yellow jersey. I am pretty certain that just like Floyd Landis, the title will be taken away from him in the foreseeable future. It is not only the Tour winner who looks to stand in a shady light, but especially the UCI, which couldn’t prove its credibility.

I think the UCI has a problem and a president who lies. He clearly stated that there is no doping case, only to say the opposite the next day.

Seppelt has not provided details of his sources and both his and L’Équipe‘s claims are not watertight – if the plasiticizer showed up in Contador’s sample from July 20th, why did it not also register clenbuterol? –  but it certainly throws discussion of the case into a new light, and also provides a plausible explanation as to one of the most curious aspects of yesterday’s announcements, namely its timing. Why go public more than five weeks after the initial test results were known, and yet too soon to provide any definitive conclusions – and right in the middle of the UCI’s Road World Championships? But if ARD and/or L’Équipe were about to publish their stories, it would have forced Contador and the UCI’s hand to take pre-emptive action in an attempt to control the media agenda.

Piecing together the various allegations, if Contador had been engaging in blood doping the chain of events – and I cannot stress enough that this is a notional timeline – would have been something like this:

March/April: Participates in major Spring races including Paris-Nice and Flèche Wallonne.

May: Misses the Giro d’Italia to focus on training. Clenbuterol is administered to improve aerobic capacity and reduce body fat. At this point, samples of blood containing clenbuterol, are extracted and frozen for later use.

June: Returns to action.

July 19: Takes over the yellow jersey from Andy Schleck. As race leader, he is automatically required to give a sample.

July 20: Another sample provided, which registers the presence of plasticizers used in blood bags.

July 21: Rest day, on which he is tested again. At some point on either this or the previous day, he receives a transfusion of the blood taken in May. The vast majority of the clenbuterol has degraded but unbeknownst to those involved – possibly a miscalculation? – a tiny trace still remains. Even then, it is at a concentration 40 times lower than accredited labs are required to detect, and might well have escaped attention had it been tested anywhere other than the sophisticated facility at Cologne.

August 24: Contador is informed of the positive test by the UCI. Work begins to build a credible defence.

September 30: Over five weeks later, in reaction to the danger of ARD/L’Équipe breaking the story about both the clenbuterol and plasticizer tests themselves, the clenbuterol test result is made public and Contador is provisionally suspended by the UCI. No mention is made of the plasticizers.

At this stage – and again, I cannot emphasise this enough – all the above is clearly no more than allegation and supposition, but it does appear the pendulum has swung back the other way since Contador’s protestations of innocence yesterday afternoon. No doubt we will soon see equally compelling counter-arguments rubbishing Seppelt and L’Équipe‘s claims. And ultimately, it appears no action can be taken regarding the plastcizer test if it is not WADA-ratified, so any sanction will depend on the outcome of the clenbuterol investigation.

Right here right now, who knows what to think? All we can hope for is that the truth will eventually come out and that Contador is proven to be either demonstrably innocent or … well, I don’t really want to consider what the implications of the alternative are for both the rider, the governing body and the sport itself, thanks. I suspect we will be ‘treated’ to further revelations in the coming days and weeks which move us further from a position of black-and-white into the uncertain and murky shades of grey in which the facts become increasingly obfuscated by a deluge of argument and counter-argument.

Regardless, it now appears the dark cloud hanging over cycling will not dissipate any time soon. And the dual insinuation that the finest rider of the current generation and the sport’s governing body may have been implicit in a sordid cover-up should be a worrying one, not just for fans of cycling but all sports. If such Machiavellian machinations can occur in one major sport, then none can be considered above suspicion.

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My sporting month: October 2010

October is a busy month in the sporting calendar, with its opening weekend in particular crammed full of potential highlights from all over the world – two of them taking place in Melbourne.

Here are five of the events which I will be looking out for over the next 31 days, with an honourable mention to three others which will struggle to compete for my personal airtime in what looks set to be a jam-packed month of intense – and hopefully exciting – sporting action.

1. AFL Grand Final replay (2nd)

For only the third time in the history of Aussie Rules, last Saturday’s Grand Final between Collingwood and St Kilda ended in a tie, 68-68, after St Kilda overturned a 24-point second half deficit.

Tomorrow’s replay of the final at the MCG promises to be equally tense. It is a long time since either club has enjoyed the privilege of being reigning Premiers – Collingwood’s last Grand Final win was in 1990, St Kilda’s in 1966 (when they defeated Collingwood in the final).

Philippe Gilbert

2. UCI Road World Championships: Men’s road race (3rd)

Cycling’s annual championships in Geelong and Melbourne actually started on Wednesday – Great Britain’s Emma Pooley won the women’s time trial – but the highlight will be the closing event, the men’s road race, which takes place on Sunday. The riders will tackle a 262.7 km course with a tricky uphill finish which may favour Classics strong men over pure sprinters like Mark Cavendish.

Belgium’s Philippe Gilbert, winner of this year’s Amstel Gold race and of two stages in last month’s Vuelta a España, will feature among the favourites for what promises to be an open race.

For further analysis of the contenders for the race, read Jack Sargeant’s preview over at The Sports Review.

3. Premier League: Chelsea vs Arsenal (3rd) and Man City vs Arsenal (24th)

After last weekend’s shock home defeat to West Brom, Arsenal face two tough Premier League away trips this month, travelling first to Chelsea on Sunday and then to Manchester City, who dealt the champions their first defeat of the season last week.

Arsène Wenger‘s side suffered heavy losses in both these fixtures last season. After these two games we will have a good idea whether they are in better shape to mount a credible title run this year.

Mark Webber (image courtesy of formula1.com)

Championship leader Mark Webber

4. Formula 1: Japanese GP (10th) and Korean GP (24th)

With a potential 100 points still available from the four remaining races and just 25 separating current championship leader Mark Webber from fifth-placed Jenson Button, there is still everything to play for as one of the tightest F1 seasons of all time approaches its climax.

Ferrari‘s Fernando Alonso currently has the greatest momentum, having won three of the last five races (including the last two). By contrast, Lewis Hamilton will be desperate to reignite his title challenge, having crashed out of the last two races.

Meanwhile, the entire F1 circus will wait with bated breath to see whether or not the new Korean GP will actually go ahead as planned, with the organisers struggling to get the new track complete in time.

5. San Francisco 49ers vs Denver Broncos (31st)

After an unbeaten preseason, the 49ers have started 0-3 and already parted company with their offensive co-ordinator. Mike Singletary‘s team will need a good run over the next four games if they are to arrive for the NFL‘s fourth regular season game in the UK with their playoff hopes still intact. Their opponents at Wembley, the Denver Broncos, are 1-2 after a difficult start, so both teams will desperately need to win this repeat of Super Bowl XXIV (which the Joe Montana-led 49ers won 55-10).

The game will be covered live on Sky Sports, with highlights shown on the BBC. 80,000-plus fans will be there on the day; I’ll be one of them.

I have omitted (at least) three other major events from this month’s list, which I will at least follow in some capacity. Golf‘s Ryder Cup runs from today through to Sunday at Celtic Manor in Wales. The 19th Commonwealth Games, despite its much-publicised problems and the withdrawal of many competitors, will nonetheless start in Delhi on the 3rd and continue until the 14th. And finally, baseball‘s World Series is scheduled to start on the 27th.

Like I said, it’s a jam-packed month. Enjoy.

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