Tour de France winner Alberto Contador's positive test result for clenbuterol, which became public Wednesday more than two months after he was tested, has unleashed a torrent of conflicting information, theories and speculation about what it means for the credibility of the sport and the anti-doping system itself.
We attempt to pick our way through the rubble in a case that is bound to generate controversy for weeks, months and years to come:
Q: What is clenbuterol and why is it considered performance-enhancing?
A: Clenbuterol is not an anabolic steroid, although it has been shown to have anabolic effects -- i.e. building lean muscle mass and reducing body fat by stimulating the metabolism -- in animals, especially cattle. Somewhat confusingly, it is classified under the World Anti-Doping Agency code's prohibited list as an "anabolic agent." The synthetic substance is approved for use as an asthma medication in some countries, although not in the United States. It acts to dilate bronchial passages by relaxing smooth muscle and can increase blood pressure, aerobic capacity and the ability to process oxygen. However, there has been no validated scientific research on the performance-enhancing effects of clenbuterol in humans.
Q: Does it make sense that clenbuterol was found in only two of Contador's samples when he was tested on six consecutive days?
A: Yes, according to pioneering American anti-doping researcher Dr. Don Catlin, who said the substance rarely has a half-life of more than a day. (A report commissioned by Contador's attorneys, using Dr. Douwe de Boer of the Netherlands, former science director of the WADA-accredited lab in Lisbon as an expert analyst, set the window of detection at 25-39 hours.) As the race leader, Contador was tested every day from July 19-24; clenbuterol was present in his urine at a level of 50 picograms/milliliter on July 21, and less than half that amount the next day, which would be consistent with having the substance enter his body on the evening of July 20. It was not detected in the samples collected before (July 19 and 20) and after (July 23 and 24) the positive.
Q: What do the testing numbers really mean?
A: The concentration of clenbuterol in Contador's urine sample was extremely low, but within the context of current anti-doping rules, that doesn't matter. As WADA director David Howman told the Associated Press, clenbuterol is not "a threshold substance," meaning an accused athlete is accountable for it whether the quantity is large or infinitesimal. The amount found in Contador's sample has been described as 40 times less than what a WADA lab is required to be able to detect, but again, that refers to a standard for lab performance and is irrelevant to an athlete's guilt or innocence under the WADA code.
However, many experts agree that testing methods for clenbuterol have become so sensitive, it is now being detected at non-performance enhancing levels, opening up a debate about whether WADA should establish a threshold. Paul Scott, a lawyer who has helped many athletes defend themselves against doping charges, said the small amount of clenbuterol found in Contador's samples mean that it was "impossible" he took it for doping purposes during the race. "You're going to see a lot more of these [positives] if WADA doesn't change their policy," he said.
Q: Why did the test result take so long to come out?
A: That is still a mystery. In recent years, many positive Tour de France test results have been processed in a matter of days; deposed 2006 Tour winner Floyd Landis was informed of his positive result for synthetic testosterone in less than a week. Contador was notified of his positive test Aug. 24, over a month after the July 21 test.
In what may or may not be a related event, there was a change in the testing infrastructure in 2010. Prior to this year's race, all Tour samples were handled by the WADA-accredited lab in the Paris suburb of Chatenay-Malabry. The UCI, cycling's international governing body, had full testing authority for the 2010 race. When that body's feud with French anti-doping authorities flared up again, the UCI elected to send samples from this year's Tour to two other WADA-accredited labs in Cologne, Germany, and Lausanne, Switzerland. There is no evidence showing that this change contributed to the delay in Contador's test result being made public -- both labs are widely considered to be among the best in the world.
WADA sent independent observers to the Tour and pledged to relay targeted testing requests from French anti-doping authorities to the UCI and to make sure those tests were done. The independent observers' report on testing procedures at the Tour is due to be published in the next couple of weeks.
Q: Is Contador's "contaminated meat" theory plausible?
A: Several outbreaks involving meat tainted by clenbuterol have been reported around the world in the past 20 years, mainly in Europe and China, and were cited in de Boer's report. Contador contends the trace amount of the drug found in his urine must have come from beef brought over the border from Spain to his team hotel at the Tour by a friend, Spanish race organizer Jose Luis Lopez Cerron. Other Astana team members also ate it, but the only other rider tested that day, Alexandre Vinokourov, refrained because he had already eaten.
Some people have become violently ill after eating clenbuterol-tainted meat; experts say the tiny amount of the substance that showed up in Contador's system was not enough to make him sick. Many countries have outlawed the practice of dosing livestock with clenbuterol or steroids, but there is evidence that low-level environmental contamination remains pervasive. In a 2009 scholarly paper co-authored by Prof. Wilhelm Schaenzer, the Cologne lab director, he and two other German experts concluded: "With a detectability of clenbuterol at this low concentration, positive findings in residue analysis and doping control could be due to the consumption of trace amounts found in [livestock] feed or principally also in the water supply. Threshold concentration amounts for clenbuterol in doping control have, therefore, to be considered in the future." Catlin agreed, saying he thinks the rules are too strict.
Q: Have other athletes made the contamination argument?
A: Yes, but none have persuaded anti-doping authorities to let them completely off the hook. American swimmer Jessica Hardy, who withdrew from the 2008 Olympic team after her positive test, convinced arbitrators she had ingested clenbuterol accidentally in a nutritional supplement. The panel subsequently reduced her suspension from two years to one. In that case, Catlin, who testified for Hardy, was able to test the exact same batch of the supplement in question, as Hardy still had the unfinished box.
Her lawyer, Howard Jacobs, said it could be considerably more difficult for Contador to establish the source of his contamination if he is contending it came from a farm animal. Other recent clenbuterol cases include a positive test earlier this season by RadioShack rider Fuyu Li of China, whose case is still pending, and Polish canoe/kayak athlete Adam Seroczynski, who argued food contamination after a positive test at the Beijing Olympics; arbitrators rejected his contention, saying Olympic organizers had taken great pains to ensure the food supply was safe and pointing out that no other athlete at the Summer Games tested positive.
Q: What happens to Contador next?
A: If, after further investigation, the UCI decided Contador has committed an anti-doping violation, he would remain provisionally suspended from competition. Contador could then plead his case to Spanish anti-doping authorities, and if he is unsuccessful at that level, could appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. The process usually takes many months and Contador's ability to race next year would be in serious question.
Q: What sanctions could Contador face?
A: The standard suspension would be two years. That could be reduced, as in Hardy's case, or eliminated in the event Contador obtained a no-fault ruling. His potential participation in the 2012 Olympics, which begin right around the time that his suspension would end if he gets the standard penalty, could also be jeopardized. Under International Olympic Committee rules, any athlete who serves a suspension of six months or longer for an anti-doping violation is automatically banned from the next Olympic Games, although there is provision for a waiver from the IOC.
Q: Will Contador's Tour de France title be stripped?
A: WADA rules state that an athlete is automatically disqualified from any competition where he or she has committed an anti-doping violation. In practice, if an athlete contests the test results, sports governing bodies wait until after a ruling in the first round of arbitration. The UCI declared Spain's Oscar Pereiro winner of the 2006 Tour de France in October 2007, a day after a U.S. panel announced a 2-1 ruling against Landis in his effort to challenge his positive test. Pereiro received a trophy and symbolic yellow jersey in a ceremony in Spain, and later posed before a photographic backdrop of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Landis remains the only Tour winner to have lost his title due to a positive test.
Q: What intangibles could play into this decision?
A: The UCI has been on the defensive for years, but never more so than in the months since Landis accused the federation of systemic corruption, including payoffs in return for advance warning of tests or covering up positives, a secret blacklist of riders, and general incompetence. In the latest salvo, a prominent German journalist Thursday accused the UCI of trying to cover up the test and alleged that clenbuterol entered Contador's system by means of a blood transfusion. Those kinds of allegations have yet to be tested in a court of law, but the UCI will doubtless feel enormous pressure to explain the testing procedure and its actions in applying the rules to Contador, notwithstanding his stature in the sport.
Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.