Alberto Contador’s positive test is either the truth or a near-perfect excuse

By John Leicester, AP
Saturday, October 2, 2010

Contador: Tall tale or truth?

PARIS — Tour de France champion Alberto Contador’s explanation that a suspect filet mignon caused his positive doping test is either a true story or a very clever excuse that could be hard to disprove. Neither scenario looks rosy for the fight against drug cheats.

One reason to give the rider the benefit of the doubt is that he wouldn’t be the first Spaniard to be contaminated by meat containing clenbuterol, the drug he tested positive for in minute quantities. Dozens of people were sickened in 1992 in Spain’s Catalonia region by eating clenbuterol-laced veal liver or veal tongue and cannelloni, also thought to have been contaminated. Similar poisonings have cropped up in Italy, France and Portugal.

In other words, clenbuterol has been known to find its way into the food chain. For that, blame farmers who use it to make their cows, pigs and other animals grow big and strong.

But how wonderfully convenient for Contador. Good luck disproving that one. Seems safe to assume that the rest of the animal is probably long gone by now, gobbled up by hungry cyclists and others, and that there’s nothing left over to test to see if Contador’s tale is true or simply tall.

Presented with a letter saying, “we found clenbuterol in your urine,” bad steak also is a more clever excuse than bad food supplements — because that one has been tried and didn’t work.

Athletes are meant to know that supplements are risky, that they can be contaminated by rubbish that could trigger a positive test. That is why swimmer Jessica Hardy still got a one-year ban even though the Court of Arbitration for Sport and others agreed that it wasn’t really her fault that she tested positive for clenbuterol and that a tainted supplement was to blame. She was negligent but not significantly so, CAS ruled.

But steak, well, that’s different. Athletes can’t be expected to carefully test every morsel of burger, sausage or liver before they eat it. If steak really is to blame, which is yet to be proved, punishing Contador for it would be mightily unfair. Then again, other athletes who tested positive for clenbuterol have tried arguing to CAS that contaminated meat was to blame. Their arguments were thrown out. That doesn’t bode well for Contador.

Or the steak story could merely be a red herring.

One possibility being considered is that Contador had an illegal endurance-boosting blood transfusion to help him get through the Pyrenees, where the July 21 test was conducted.

The idea is that the clenbuterol could have been in the blood or plasma used to dilute it and that may have triggered the positive test. Damien Ressiot, a reporter who specializes in doping for French sports newspaper L’Equipe, reported that traces of plastic residue were found in Contador’s urine. One working hypothesis is that the plastic traces could have come from the bag that blood would have been stored in.

Contador absolutely denies blood doping. But who can believe athletes any more? Lying cheats such as Floyd Landis have trotted out so many bogus excuses over the years that no story or denial can be accepted at face value. So excuse us if the only way we can swallow Contador’s steak story at the moment is with a giant pinch of salt.

Even the Dutch anti-doping expert that Contador has hired to help him explain away his positive test and who argues that steak is a very likely explanation isn’t ready to rule out the blood transfusion scenario.

“I cannot exclude the possibility,” Douwe de Boer said.

In that case, the rest of us shouldn’t either.

Again, good luck proving that. Contador’s blood, which cycling’s governing body monitors to try to catch out cheats with a hugely expensive anti-doping system that isn’t infallible, showed no sign of a transfusion. So if he had one, and minute plastic traces are the only suggestion of it, then one can only hope that the science is super-solid if this ever ends up in court. Because there’s a whole list of reasons other than doping that could explain plastic traces in urine. If the steak had been film-wrapped, might that get him off the hook?

In the wake of this, the latest in a long line of drug cases, the temptation is to think that cycling remains rotten to the core and is still taking fans for a ride. But that would ignore the fact that cycling is doing far more than some other sports to tackle what clearly remains a big problem. There are still bad apples in cycling but it is not the whole barrel.

If this is nothing more than a hash over a steak, then it is terrible for the three-time Tour champion that his reputation is now undergoing such scrutiny.

It is good for sports that anti-doping labs are so cutting edge that even the smallest traces of banned substances can be detected — in Contador’s case 0.00000000005 grams per milliliter. But if Contador is innocent, then we need to ask whether the tooth-comb is becoming too fine and catching people unnecessarily.

The other scenario — that he cheated — doesn’t look any better, because it could be extremely tricky to prove.

Either way, we’ll be left with suspicion. Like a bad steak, that leaves a nasty taste.

John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)

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