28th July 2021

Alex Wilson case underlines need for meat contamination review

First, a US athlete claimed that a dodgy burrito had terminated their Olympic hopes and now, a meal at a Jamaican restaurant in Las Vegas has apparently ended a Swiss athlete’s Olympic dream. It increasingly appears that growth promoters used by farmers are causing athletes to return adverse analytical findings (AAFs – or ‘positive tests’) for prohibited substances. As such, do the World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA’s) rules on meat contamination need revisiting?

Alex Wilson’s case

The Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) has ensured that Swiss sprinter Alex Wilson will not take part in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, after upholding an appeal from the Athletics Integrity Unit (AIU) and WADA against a Decision to lift his provisional suspension. The Ad Hoc division of the CAS agreed with the AIU and WADA that the Swiss Olympic Committee had misapplied the rules of Anti-Doping Switzerland by asking if his AAF for trenbolone could have been caused by contaminated beef.

‘Such criterion is not in line with the applicable rules of Anti-doping Switzerland which provide that the test is to determine whether it is likely or probable that the positive finding was caused by the consumption of contaminated beef’, read a CAS statement. ‘The Panel was therefore satisfied that the conditions to impose a provisional suspension were met’.

Wilson argues that his 15 March AAF for an ‘extremely small’ amount of trenbolone metabolite epitrenbolone resulted from eating contaminated beef at a Jamaican restaurant in Las Vegas, as he was returning from a training camp to Switzerland to attend the birth of his third child. An institute in Strasbourg analysed a sample of hair from his beard, and concluded that epitrenbolone was ‘most likely’ to have entered his body via food intake.

“I am very surprised and devastated by the CAS decision”, read a statement from the sprinter. “I find it difficult to understand why I am expressing my point of view towards the disciplinary body of Swiss Olympic, which saw it as credible, but the Ad Hoc Division of the CAS was considering this World Athletics application and sees it differently. Especially because I have sound, scientific, and well-founded arguments that have been confirmed by experts.”

Wilson’s statement labelled the CAS Decision ‘astonishing’. It continued: ‘The Disciplinary Chamber came to the conclusion that Alex Wilson had succeeded in credibly demonstrating that the positive findings could have come about through the consumption of contaminated beef. The ad hoc Division is now disregarding the decision of the [Swiss Olympic] disciplinary body for doping cases and accuses them of violating the law.’

Secrecy

Timeline of proceedings (click to open)…

Anti-Doping Switzerland declined to comment on the case, but provided a useful timeline (see right). Wilson’s provisional suspension hadn’t been announced by the AIU, which still doesn’t feature his case on its internet site. Last month, the AIU admitted that it had made a “judgement call” not to announce Shelby Houlihan’s provisional suspension in a case that has remarkable similarities. AIU policies require it to publicly disclose provisional suspensions (see below right).  

AIU rules on announcing provisional suspensions…

‘Swiss Olympic only found out about the proceedings against Alex Wilson a few days ago’, read a statement from the country’s Olympic Committee. ‘As the umbrella organisation for Swiss sports and the National Olympic Committee, Swiss Olympic very much regrets this case and would be very disappointed if the offence was confirmed. All the more because Kariem Hussein, another Swiss athlete, was recently banned for nine months for violating anti-doping regulations. 

‘The two cases are not related and cannot be compared. However, they show that the international and national sports associations must not compromise when it comes to preventing doping. Swiss Olympic is convinced that the fight against doping must be conducted with all consistency. Even if it means that Swiss Olympic and Swiss Athletics are confronted for the second time within a few days with the negative aspects and the downsides of sport and the associated negative headlines.’

Contamination

Two athletes have recently blamed food consumed in the US for positive tests that have kept them out of the Olympics. Earlier this year, WADA recognised that meat contamination is an issue. It issued guidance in the form of a Technical Letter changing the evidential burden of proof regarding AAFs for clenbuterol, ractopamine, zeranol, and zilpaterol. 

Under the strict liability principle applicable to anti-doping, an athlete is considered guilty of an anti-doping rule violation (ADRV) unless they can prove that they are innocent. They must demonstrate that their explanation for an AAF is likely or probable. In other words, if they argue that contaminated meat is at fault, they must prove that they ingested meat that was likely to be, or probably, contaminated with a prohibited substance.

Under WADA’s guidance, if an athlete reports an AAF for any of the above four substances that involves levels of 5ng/mL or below, then the anti-doping organisation involved must shoulder the financial burden of exploring whether meat contamination is a possibility. This guidance doesn’t apply to cases involving trenbolone (Wilson’s case) or nandrolone (Houlihan’s case). However, WADA recognises that nandrolone and trenbolone can be also used by farmers on cattle.

Trenbolone Acetate is widely used in the US to promote the growth of beef cattle, argues a 2006 scientific Study. It found that sufficient quantities of trenbolone were found in river water upstream and downstream from a cattle feeding station to have an anabolic effect on mammals and fish more than a year later. 

WADA’s Technical Document relating to nandrolone (TD2021NA) specifies that consumption of pig offal can result in the excretion of sufficient quantities of nandrolone of exogenous origin (i.e. not produced internally) to produce an AAF. This conclusion is backed by a scientific Study conducted in 2000.

Given what we now know about the sensitivity of anti-doping tests, is it beyond the realms of possibility that somebody who had consumed contaminated meat could return a positive test for trenbolone or nandrolone, or other substances? Why hasn’t contamination of meat with other prohibited substances been recognised in WADA’s updated guidance? Why do only those that test positive for clenbuterol, ractopamine, zeranol, and zilpaterol get special treatment?

Whose fault?

Perhaps tellingly, a statement from Swiss Athletics twice emphasises that the presumption of innocence applies to Wilson. The fact that he keeps a food diary may help his case. He is provisionally suspended, and has not been convicted of an anti-doping rule violation (ADRV). 

In short, he hasn’t done anything wrong. Given the circumstances of his case, should he be provisionally suspended? The AIU and WADA appear to think so. Anti-Doping Switzerland and the Swiss Olympic Committee appear to disagree.

It would appear that the AIU and WADA have either acted based on a strict interpretation of the rules or because they don’t believe his explanation, or a combination of the two. Yes, it is important that athletes who test positive for prohibited substances are removed from competition for reasons of fairness towards their competitors. But when trace amounts of known meat contaminants are involved and a proffered explanation has already been accepted as likely, it seems a little perverse for anti-doping to celebrate ending an athlete’s Olympic dream.

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