Strict liability rules in doping violations for clenbuterol: the Ovtcharov, Contador and Hardy cases


The recent news reported by Associated Press on September 22 that German Olympic Table Tennis medalist Dimitrij Ovtcharov was suspended over a positive doping test was likely missed by many in the United States, but it was certainly not missed in Germany.  What should be notable to all is that this is yet another violation due to clenbuterol, the same drug that Tour De France Champion Alberto Contador tested positive for a few months ago.  Also at the core of this case is the long-held rule of strict liability that has been a core tenet of the anti-doping system and is undergoing a series of tests currently due to the influx of recent clenbuterol positive drug-test reports.

This core tenet, described on page 19 in section 2.1.1 of the World Anti-Doping Code – 2009 says that athletes are responsible for any substance found in their body.  The comment provides a good history of the rule and describes that “in the exceptional circumstance where a Prohibited Substance entered an Athlete’s system through No Fault or Negligence or No Significant Fault or Negligence on the Athlete’s part” modified sanctions may be considered.  The consideration of fault or negligence has been adopted over the course of time based on experiences similar to that of American swimmer Jessica Hardy, who also tested positive for clenbuterol back in 2008 and lost her opportunity to compete in the Olympics because of it.

In her case, our laboratory found that the supplements she was taking were contaminated with clenbuterol.  After a long legal fight, she did receive a reduced sanction of one year based on this consideration, though she has to continue to fight to be allowed to compete in the next Olympic Games as drug test violations in today’s system are supposed to keep you out of the next Olympics.

Apparently as of October 15, 2010 news indicates that Ovtcharov’s doping suspension has been lifted after the report by Cologne doping expert Wilhelm Schaenzer noted that “the intake of clenbuterol through contaminated food was the likeliest explanation for the finding.  A doping related use of clenbuterol is highly unlikely.”

We are not surprised by the notes of our friend and colleague Dr. Schaenzer, as we have had similar musings ourselves in regards to the Contador case.  We do note that nothing in the comments quoted from his report in the article above seem to definitively state where the source of clenbuterol originated.  It is also noteworthy that the Ovtcharov suspension seems to have been lifted after only three weeks based on the statements that he was ‘likely’ not at fault.  Comparing this situation to Jessica Hardy’s one-year sanction and two-year-plus legal battle is perhaps most striking.

Now, we have no inside knowledge or information regarding this matter and we suspect that Dr. Schaenzer would not make such statements without data to demonstrate that the likelihood of doping does not exist in this case.  We would like to find out more information.  We are also curious about the hair test noted in the article, how it was done and what it demonstrated.

Meanwhile we have to wonder about the Contador case as he too has blamed contaminated meat for the clenbuterol finding, according to an article in The New York Times on September 30, 2010.  According to the article, Contador’s hired expert, Dutch scientist Douwe de Boer, “has already generated a paper concluding that ‘it is extremely likely and would be only fair’ to say that the existence of clenbuterol in Contador’s system was from an accidental ingestion of contaminated meat.”  The article goes on to note, “An expert in clenbuterol contamination in meat, however, characterized Contador’s explanation as almost impossible.”  Certainly, the swirling rumors surrounding placticizer tests and blood transfusion possibilities do not help his cause.  Perhaps a hair test will exonerate him as well, we will see.  Meanwhile, Contador must move on to month two of his fight; time will tell if it is as long as Jessica Hardy’s.

Once all is said and done, it will be interesting to examine how the strict liability rules are applied in these cases and the others that are out there.

Contador is not alone; clenbuterol positives are not uncommon

The international sport media has been thrown into a fervor again today over the announcement of Alberto Contador’s positive drug test for clenbuterol.  Unfortunately, he is not alone, as clenbuterol positives have been a recurring problem.  The table below summarizes some of the other cases.  We also highlight some of the things we have learned about clenbuterol and the realities of detecting it through drug tests.

What we have learned:

1) The best way to know if clenbuterol was deliberately used for doping purposes is to evaluate the amount present in the athlete’s urine.

2) Labs can detect minute amounts of clenbuterol on drug tests.  As a result, even very small amounts of contamination in a supplement product can cause a positive drug test.  The Jessica Hardy case is a perfect example.  She was pulled out of the Beijing Olympics at the last minute and was sanctioned because very low levels of clenbuterol were found present in her urine.  Clenbuterol contamination was discovered in a supplement she had been taking.

3) Athletes from China account for the most cases, but Spanish athletes have also been involved.   Twenty years ago there was an epidemic of serious clenbuterol toxicity in Spanish persons – non-athletes.  It was thoroughly investigated and traced to a farm that was using huge doses to bulk up cattle.  Athletes were not involved.   The Spanish authorities responded by establishing new controls, which remain in effect today.

Below is a table of clenbuterol drug test violations as summarized by Zack Bilgake on,

Djamolidine Abdoujaparov UZB Cycling 1997 Tour de France/Stage 2 (July 6) Retired
Xiong Guoming CHN Swimming out of competition test in 1999 (March 8 ) 3-year suspension
Wang Wei CHN Swimming out of competition test in 1999 (March 8 ) 3-year suspension
Mariano Puerta ARG Tennis 2003 ATP Viña del Mar (February 12) *ARGUED FOOD CONTAMINATION 9-month susp. + $5600 fine
Zhou Jie CHN Swimming out of competition test in 2005 (Sept 6) *ARGUED FOOD CONTAMINATION 2-year suspension
Karol Beck SVK Tennis 2005 Davis Cup semi v. Argentina (Sept 25) 2-year suspension
Anzhelika Gavrilova KAZ Speed skating positive test before 2006 Olympics (Jan 4) 1-year suspension
Mitchil Mann AUS Weightlifting 2 positive samples in 2006 (Oct 30, Nov 3) 2-year suspension
Ouyang Kunpeng CHN Swimming tested positive before 2008 Olympics (July 1) *ARGUED FOOD CONTAMINATION lifetime ban
Jessica Hardy USA Swimming 2008 U.S. Olympic trials (July 4) *TAINTED NUTRITIONAL SUPPLEMENT/ADVOCARE voluntary Olympic withdrawal/1-year suspension
Reni Maitua AUS Rugby positive test by ASADA (May 20/2009) 2-year suspension
Tong Wen CHN Judo stripped of 2009 world title (May 10/2010) *ARGUED FOOD CONTAMINATION 2-year suspension
Li Fuyu CHN Cycling In-competition test at 2010 Dwars Door Vlaanderen (March 24) 2-year suspension
Callum Priestley GBR Hurdles tested positive February 2010 (Sept 5) *ARGUED FOOD CONTAMINATION 2-year suspension