Remember that Seinfeld episode where Elaine tested positive for opium because she had eaten a poppy seed muffin? Like most Seinfeld episodes, it was hilarious. But real life situations like that are anything but laughing matters, and one is happening now. It's every bit as outrageous as the Seinfeld episode, except it's not remotely funny. And those advancing the absurdity have sparked a war in the already wild world of professional cycling.
The Tour de France ranks among the world's top sporting events. Watched by hundreds of millions around the world, it is the ultimate test of strength and endurance. A Tour winner becomes an instant worldwide celebrity, making millions through endorsements and personal appearances. With stakes so high, cheating is always a threat. With that in mind, the athletes in the race are subjected to what could be the most rigorous testing for performance enhancing drugs in all of sport.
Rumors constantly circulate around the media and Tour about how so-and-so must be doping, despite the rigorous testing. Seven time champion Lance Armstrong is still hounded by these unsubstantiated rumors even though he has never failed a drug test of any sort. While it would seem to the rest of us that no human could ride a bike more than 2000 miles so quickly, especially through the Alps, without something aiding them, we also do not train constantly for years to do just that.
The reigning champion of the Tour is three time winner Alberto Contador from Spain. He's also one of the people who has faced those unfounded rumors of doping. But Contador not only fought back, he won. But rumors are currency in the media these days, and the media loves to spend, so those rumors are still floating around in the sports media besmirching Contador's reputation and adding pressure to ban him from this year's Tour. Madness.
The so-called controversy arose last year after the race was over and Contador had won. The leader of the Tour de France throughout the race wears the "Yellow Jersey" to signify their lead. Along with the prestige of being the leader, it also comes with a thorough drug test every single day you wear it.
On July 21st, 2010, during the Tour de France, an off day, while Contador wearing the Yellow Jersey, a trace amount of a substance called Clenbuterol was found in his urine. How small is a "trace amount"? It was 40 times less than the minimum amount to be detectable for a laboratory to be accredited by the World Anti-Doping Agency, the gold standard for testing. Essentially it wasn't enough to affect a mouse.
Even more bizarre is why would a professional cyclist, who strives for a slight, aerodynamic frame (more body mass means more wind resistance, a distinct disadvantage in a race of this sort) use a drug designed to help beef cattle put on muscle and weight (it also helps some people with asthma)? The trace amount of the steroid was detected in a test administered to Contador on the day before the start of the Alps phase of the race, a time when competitors certainly want to be at their lightest.
Finally, and perhaps most perplexing, is the fact that Contador had been tested the day before and the day after the "positive" test came back. The test the day before came back negative for Clenbuterol or any other illegal substances. The tests the days after came back positive for smaller amounts of Clenbuterol than he had in his system on the first positive test -- proving when he ate the tainted meat and that it happened one time only.
Why would anyone take an ineffective dose of a banned drug designed to do the opposite of anything helpful to you in your sport? The answer is easy. He didn't intentionally ingest it.
It turns out that Clenbuterol has another use, a use that exposes millions to it every day without knowing -- farming. Clenbuterol is often used by beef farmers to bulk up the cattle to yield more beef and, while in most cases illegal, is rather common. And, wouldn't you know it, Alberto Contador, on the day in which he tested positive had a big steak for dinner that the team Chef ordered from Spain.
This is the case Contador made before the Spanish Federation, the governing body of the cycling world in Spain, and he won. But there are rumors circulating that Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) may challenge the ruling in the Court of Arbitration for Sport in an attempt to keep Contador out of this year's Tour.
His team has already done the nearly impossible, proving a negative. Pressing the issue and appealing that decision would be simply absurd. It is critically important for the reputation of the scandal-plagued sport (not to mention the reputation of a clearly innocent 3-time Tour champion) that the governing bodies direct their energy toward catching real cheaters (there are plenty) using real performance-enhancing drugs, while allowing for the fact that accidental ingestion of a steroid that would HARM a cyclist's performance is not only possible, but likely.
Unlike Seinfeld, where Elaine ended up getting a "sample" from Jerry's mother to pass the test, this isn't funny. Alberto Contador was tested in the days before, the day after and all days after that, and all tests were negative, even for the insignificant trace amounts of Clenbuterol. Given the facts of the case and the realities of the race, any additional action by the UCI would reek of vendetta, something else for which the sport is, unfortunately, known. The real challenge here is to the media to trumpet his vindication with the same zeal with which they cheered his alleged demise.
Christian Josi is a noted recording artist, activist, and occasional columnist. He is based in Washington, D.C.
Editor's Note: This post has been revised to more extensively describe the various uses of Clenbuterol ("Clen") and to more accurately explain the nature of Alberto Contador's test results in the days following July 21st, 2010.