Tainted Meat

The Ambiguities of Doping in Professional Cycling

by by Chris Cohen

illustration by by Becca Levinson

On July 21 2010, drug testers at the Tour de France found trace amounts of the banned weight-loss drug Clenbuterol in Spanish cyclist Alberto Contador’s blood. The result was not announced for more than a month, well after Contador wrapped up victory in the main classification of the race. The news was a scandal in the cycling world, as Contador is the most talented cyclist of his generation: he has won the three-week Tour de France three times, and dominated manysmaller races. At 28, still in his prime by cycling standards, Contador seemed poised to become one of the sport’s greatest riders before the positive test.

The case against Contador seemed to be straightforward at first. He explained the presence of clenbuterol in his blood by advancing what has been called the “tainted meat defense”—he claims that a friend brought him a Spanish steak contaminated with the drug for dinner on a rest day. To some fans, this echoed American cyclist Floyd Landis’s denials after a positive test in the 2006 Tour, and his half-joking suggestion that he tested positive from drinking Jack Daniels. (Landis has since admitted to doping, and accused many other American cyclists of his generation, including Lance Armstrong, of similar violations.) The letter of the law is unfavorable to Contador: national federations, which carry out the first round of a hearing, are instructed to decide doping cases based on the principle of “strict liability,” which presumes guilt in the event of a positive test. It is up to the athlete to establish his or her innocence in the event of any positive test. In cycling and in other sports, athletes who unknowingly ingest banned substances, including those which provide  no performance benefit, are routinely punished with suspensions and bans.

However, the Contador case has not played out according to the strict letter of the law. The Spanish national cycling federation—a governing body with a fairly obvious conflict of interest—found Contador innocent of all wrongdoing in his first hearing, and cleared him to compete immediately. Contador raced a full season this past summer, winning the Giro d’Italia, the three-week-long tour of Italy, possibly the second most prestigious race in the sport. The case did not go away, however: the international Court of Arbitration in Sport (CAS) has agreed to hear an appeal of the Spanish federation’s decision, and will finally hear arguments the week of November 21 in a case that may rewrite recent cycling history, or challenge the absolute authority of the positive test.


Cycling and doping share a long history together. Some of the first competitive events, at the end of the 19th century, were “six-day” races, where riders would complete as many laps of an indoor track as possible over six days, with as little time for rest as they could manage. These events fostered a culture of drug use: the riders would fortify themselves with brandy or primitive stimulants in order to keep their legs turning for days at a time. Though these sorts of races were eventually banned as inhumane, both the difficulty and the drugs remained a part of the sport. Dr. Mark Greve, Brown Medical School professor and the medical director for an American professional cycling team, suggested in an interview with the Independent that the brutality of the sport might have contributed to its history with doping.“Professional marathoners might run six events in a year,” he points out, while “pro cyclists ride 80 or 90 race days. It’s a part of the sport to test the limits of human endurance.” In light of this tendency, he suggests, athletes might be tempted to push the limits in other ways.

Before the 1990s, doping cyclists were limited to stimulants and anesthetics of dubious performance value. In 1989, the release of Epogen, or EPO, changed the character of doping. The drug, developed to combat anemia in patients with kidney failure and cancer, increases the body’s capacity to carry oxygen through the bloodstream, allowing fatigued muscles to work harder. There was originally no test for the drug. Dr. Greve explained, “There are all kinds of stories about the shit people were doing back then. Taking an extremely dangerous blood thinner, [for example] to counteract the EPO, with no clinical baseline.”Riders’ blood would apparently get so thick that they would have to ride a session on a stationary bike in the middle of the night to ensure their blood circulated properly. Races saw a dramatic increase in speed after the introduction of the drug.

Doping continues to be an important issue in cycling: a federal grand jury is currently assessing the case against Lance Armstrong for doping during his record- breaking Tour de France run, and the Italian cyclist Riccardo Ricco nearly died this season when he re-injected his own blood, which had become contaminated after sitting in his refrigerator. Sponsors are reluctant to associate themselves with a team that could implode in controversy, yet Dr. Greve’s research has indicated that there is doping at all levels of the sport, amateur and pro.

There is the sense, however, that cycling is cleaning up its act. Dr. Greve agrees: “I can’t say that cycling is the cleanest sport in the world,” he says, “but it’s definitely not the dirtiest, and we certainly know more about the problem than any other sport.” Year round random testing is the norm, and the top finishers of virtually every race have their hair, blood, and urine checked. Individual teams have begun their own independent testing. These advances seem to be reflected in the reality on the road: speeds up the well known mountains of the Tour de France are decreasing, in spite of advances in bike and training technology.


In light of this history, the Contador case seems even stranger. There would be little question of his guilt if he had tested positive for EPO, or a bag of his blood were discovered in the refrigerator of an unscrupulous doctor. Clenbuterol, through, is a weight loss drug. It is hard to imagine the advantage of taking a weight-loss drug in the middle of a grueling three week race like the Tour de France: riders generally have to force themselves to constantly eat in order to replace the calories they are burning. When asked if it made sense for a rider to use Clenbuterol in Contador’s situation, Dr. Greve was emphatic:  “No. No way. Before a race, yeah, maybe. But, based on the drug, and how little there was, I knew this was going to be a fiasco from the moment the story broke.”

There may, in the end, be something to the tainted meat defense. Clenbuterol is in widespread use by unscrupulous meat producers, who administer it to livestock to produce leaner meat, particularly in China and developing countries. Several Mexican soccer players had their cases dismissed by the World Anti-Doping Agency under the assumption that their positives were caused by tainted meat. Spanish cattle ranchers have suggested that unscrupulous links in the meat supply chain could have introduced clenbuterol-enhanced beef. It seems possible that Contador is telling the truth.

Contador, however, has been unable to show that the positive test undoubtedly resulted from eating the steak, and according to the principle of strict liability, it is up to him and his lawyers to convincingly prove that the Clenbuterol could not have come from anywhere else, an effectively impossible task. The Court of Arbitration for Sport, which is handling Contador’s appeal, may be open to challenges to the prevailing doctrine of strict liability. As the law stands, though, Contador could well be stripped of his 2010 Tour de France and 2011 Giro d’Italia titles, and be banned from the sport for up to two years. Drug testing in cycling is supposed to ensure a fair contest by identifying the cheaters, but sometimes the reality is more complicated. As Dr. Greve points out, “People want there to be heroes and villains. Sometimes there really is clear black, and clear white, but in between, there are many, many shades of grey.”

CHRIS COHEN B’12 blames the Evan Williams.