Tainted Meat or Tainted Truth

October 13th, 2010 by Michael Grimes

A pro cyclist tests positive for steroids but pleads for rule changes.

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The Responsibility Project

Professional cycling took another blow to its already tattered reputation with the announcement that reigning Tour de France champion Alberto Contador tested positive for a banned substance during this year’s event. According to multiple reports, the three-time Tour winner failed a drug test after trace amounts of the steroid clenbuterol had been detected.

Contador not only swears he’s innocent -- the 27-year-old Spaniard maintains a cut of contaminated beef he’d eaten prior to testing had altered the results -- but has also called for sweeping changes to existing doping rules in the aftermath of the charges.

 "There should be... the norms have to evolve, just as they have done for other substances like caffeine, where they changed the regulations because they realized they weren't right,” Contador was quoted in a recent Reuters article. "In the case of clenbuterol, positives should be positives because of the quantity found, with a specific limit, not because of the substance itself."

In his case, “the quantity” was rather small: 40 times less than the minimum amount for which anti-doping labs are required to detect. Still, current rules do not set a threshold for quantity; testing positive means testing positive, with no gray area for interpretation.

As for the veracity of Contador’s claims, a Discovery News article asserts that it may be possible to influence a drug test by consuming steroid-enhanced meat, although it’s hard to determine whether the small amount ingested by Contador would be enough. Also, the fact that several other accused dopers in the past -- among them an Italian female mountain biker and German ping pong champion -- have also flocked to the “bad beef” defense doesn’t help his cause either. Nor has the reaction from fellow cyclists.

"We’re not unduly surprised,” French cyclist Yoann Offredo has been quoted as saying. “A little (surprised) about the clenbuterol because we’d really have expected something else. It’s like the tree that hides the forest. Right now, amongst the riders, I can tell you that we’re not that shocked."

Contador has been provisionally suspended by the International Cycling Union while the investigation continues. If convicted, he faces a two-year ban from cycling and will also have to surrender the maillot jaune, the coveted yellow jersey awarded to the Tour winner every year.

What do you think? Was it an honest mistake by Contador or a convenient alibi? And as for the existing rules, are they too harsh or are they clear-cut for a reason? Let us know your thoughts.