On the Jamaican clenbuterol positives: A procedural failure and credibility black hole

03 Apr 2017 Posted by

By now you may have heard about Hajo Seppelt’s latest investigative report.  He has discovered that a number of samples from the 2008 Beijing Olympics tested positive for clenbuterol, including a number from male Jamaican sprinters, but were not disclosed or acted up by the IOC and then WADA.  The report is here, with a 10-min summary video that covers the background, the discovery of the clenbuterol positives, and the reasons for inaction.  Seppelt also plugs some gaps in the logic offered by the regulatory bodies along the way.




Briefly, the positive tests were the result of retesting in 2016, and because the sensitivity of the tests has improved considerably since 2008, laboratories were able to detect very low levels of this drug, which you may recall as either the “Contador drug” or the “Contaminated beef drug”.

In any event, Seppelt reports, thanks to anonymous sources, that the IOC, upon discovering the clenbuterol positives, refused to disclose the results, and instead took no action.  WADA later heard about this, and acted similarly (which is to say, didn’t act).

Now, before this is dismissed as wild speculation based on anonymous sources, just remember that BOTH WADA and the IOC have confirmed that “very low levels of clenbuterol” were found in “a number of cases of athletes from a number of countries and a number of different sports”.

So there is a fact here, namely that a number of adverse findings from an event have not been disclosed. That’s indisputable.  What happens next, and your interpretation of it, is perhaps less so.

Ordinarily, a positive test, followed by a positive retest, triggers an anti-doping violation, and the athlete then presents their case.  Contamination is probably the most common defence – “I took something else that was legal, but it contained the drug, unbeknown to me”.

In this specific instance, clenbuterol, that legal “something else” would be meat, and there were cases where contaminated meat caused clenbuterol positive tests, even in research.  So it can happen, particularly in developing nations, where clenbuterol is used to increase meat production.

In this particular case, however, it would appear that no process was even initiated, and these numerous cases of low clenbuterol were simply dismissed as the result of contamination.  At least, that’s the official line, according to Olivier Niggli, the DG of WADA.  In his words:

“If the levels of clenbuterol in the sample are compatible with food contamination, in other words if its levels are relatively low, compared to what you’d normally have if you’ve taken it directly, it has been accepted, and WADA has accepted that, that these cases would simply not be reported.  Of course, this is not great, because if you’re cheating, if you’re a cheater, you have perfect excuse if you get caught. But that’s where we are”

So, unless I’m reading this incorrectly, the official “accepted” position is that very low levels are dismissed.  They’re treating clenbuterol as a threshold drug, in other words, and saying that only when the levels reach X will they pursue it as likely doping.

There are two problems with this:

First, clenbuterol is explicitly NOT a threshold drug.  It’s one of the drugs where any detection, however small, is meant to trigger a positive result and subsequent pursuit of explanations and confirmation.  That seems to be inconsistent with how it is being done in practice, which is problematic.  It’s as though an arbitrary set of rules exists distinct from the stated rules.  At best, you have a procedural irregularity when you fail to respond to its presence in urine.

Second, the conceptual “scientific” problem with this is that the level you detect in a sample at Point Z in time is the result of two things: Time gone by, and amount ingested.  The amount you’d detect after say, two weeks, is obviously going to be considerably lower than that you’d detect in two days.  And if you ingest or inject twice the amount of a drug, it will be detected in higher amounts (not necessarily twice as high because it doesn’t disappear linearly).

So, you have interplay between time and amount – a big dose taken a long time ago looks like a small dose taken recently, and may look like food contamination.  The result is that you can throw back a huge dose, provided you’re tested far enough into the future that the levels have declined to what Niggli would call “compatible” with food contamination.

There is no way to tell how long a drug has been in an athlete’s body when you have only one sample.  So if these clenbuterol positives come from one occasion in Beijing, then this argument is wrong.


Precedent – the unlucky Polish Kayaker and the crux of the issue

Next, meet Adam Seroczynski.  He is a polish kayaker who tested positive in Beijing.  For clenbuterol.  His case ended up at the Court of Arbitration, and the screen grab below, taken from the ARD Documentary, shows a page from that decision, which saw him banned:

Screen Shot 2017-04-03 at 9.11.32 AM

So, the IOC cites scientific research to argue that contamination should be ruled out barring “very specific and extreme circumstances, such as the quantity of the substance in the food and the volume of food consumed” (referring to the previous point, it’s interesting that now the volume and quantities matter, but when it might point to doping, then a very low level is always attributed to food).

The crux of matter, the rump, as it were, is in comparing that, to this, the IOC statement on this issue:

Screen Shot 2017-04-03 at 9.14.47 AM

So we have “numerous cases” of innocent athletes, and one case of an athlete for whom contamination was not an excuse.

Perhaps the level of clenbuterol in Adam Seroczynski’s urine was so high that it was an obvious case of doping?  That is one possibility to consider.

However, the point I made above is that a single sample cannot provide enough evidence to rule out either doping or contamination.  If Seroczynski’s levels are very high, it rules out contamination, but the opposite is not true – very low levels can’t “rule it in”, and must be pursued.

Therefore, it is surely the responsibility of the agencies involved to use that positive test to search for explanations, to seek confirmation of a contamination explanation (failing which, they’d have a positive test and a ban).

I appreciate that the difficulty now, in 2016, eight years on, is that you can’t test for any alternatives.  The case is ‘cold’. But that’s probably just as true after 2 days, however, and so time elapsed is a problem in every situation.

But if you look at the CAS decision, the language is clear – “specific and extreme circumstances” are required for contamination to be a viable excuse.  Then look at the IOC statement – numerous athletes were cleared.

Therefore, what has happened here is that the IOC (& WADA accept it) have decided that every single one of those positives from Beijing DO MEET THE CRITERIA for specific and extreme circumstances.

Given the set of facts around this, including historical Jamaican anti-doping laxity, that is a difficult concept to swallow at face value.  Why are they innocent, but not the kayaker?  It’s even more ridiculous when you discover the lengths that the IOC and Jamaica went to in the Beijing Olympic Village precisely to avoid clenbuterol contamination!

Jamaica, for instance, flew in its own meat, prepared by its own cooks.  The IOC had rigorous quality controls in place, because it was known that clenbuterol contamination was possible.


Credibility is lost when procedure is not followed

Bottom line – many of these samples could well be contamination cases.  But they are just as likely, if not more, to be doping cases, and if anti-doping is to be believed, then it absolutely has to act according to its own rules on every single one.

For instance, had the IOC published that Beijing retesting had revealed 245 cases of Clenbuterol positives, from 18 different sports ranging from power based to endurance based sports, then a decent conversation could be had about the probability of doping as opposed to contamination.

Instead, a leak triggers a journalist to discover that these positives did exist, and that authorities chose not to act (in violation of their own rules for clenbuterol, and in contravention of scientific sense).

Under pressure to comment, the authorities then reveal that a number of athletes did test positive, but ask us all to believe them when they say they’re innocent, because of a scientifically false concept (that low levels confirm meat contamination and not doping), and despite the fact that they’ve not acted in accordance with their own rules.

That, no matter how you look at it, is a failure of anti-doping, and only serves to pile more doubt on the credibility of the whole system.  Already, there is knowledge of a “protected list”, a list of names of athletes deemed too big to fail, too important for the sport.  If Usain Bolt is among the Jamaican sprinters with clenbuterol, would he be on that list?  If Lamine Diack had anything to do with it, he would – Diack once called him the King of the Sport, and said that if he failed, it would be a disaster.

Long live the kings and queens of sport.


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