3 April 2017

Meldonium 2.0? Jamaican case highlights need for clenbuterol thresholds

An investigation by ARD has found that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) decided against proceeding with cases against Jamaican sprinters, after samples taken from them at the Beijing 2008 Olympics tested positive for low levels of clenbuterol. The IOC confirmed that many re-tested samples from Beijing 2008 contained ‘very low levels’ of clenbuterol within the range for potential meat contamination. As the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) had no evidence regarding a ‘pattern of abuse’ of clenbuterol, it was decided to target test the athletes concerned at the London 2012 and Rio 2016 Olympics instead of proceeding with cases against them.

An IOC statement revealed that the level of clenbuterol in the samples ‘were below 1ng/ml’, which it said is consistent with potential cases of meat contamination. ‘It was determined that, eight years later, athletes could not reasonably be expected to recall where and what they ate, which may have led to their consuming the substance’, read a WADA statement.

However, ARD’s investigation (video below) disputed the suggestion that the Jamaican positives were caused by contaminated meat due to preparations by both the IOC and the Jamaican team. Ángel Heredia, a former discus thrower and developer of performance-enhancing drugs who now runs an athlete nutrition and conditioning company, told reporters that he was “a hundred percent” sure that Jamaican male sprinters had used clenbuterol at Beijing 2008, as Jamaican coaches had asked him how to use it.

Clenbuterol is still used in animal feed despite being banned in the US since 1991 and by the European Union since 1996 – it has a Maximum Residue Limit (MRL) set by the same body. Following Alberto Contador’s adverse analytical finding (AAF) for clenbuterol after his 2010 Tour de France win, WADA sent a warning over the risk to athletes due to potential meat contamination in 2011.

The level of clenbuterol is also significant, as the figure of 1ng/ml is below the level at which it is considered to have an active effect. “WADA has rules with certain compounds where if the concentration found is less than 10% of the amount required to produce an active physical effect, then it is not considered a positive test”, Dutch scientist Douwe de Boer, who was hired by Contador, told World Sports Law Report in 2010. “With clenbuterol, 2,000 picograms [2 nanograms or ng] per millilitre of urine results in an active effect, so I have proposed what I call a ‘tolerance limit’ of 200 picograms per millilitre. This limit is based on common sense.”

However, although the IOC and WADA may be using such ‘common sense’, clenbuterol remains classified as an anabolic agent and is therefore not a ‘specified substance’ under WADA’s Prohibited List. This means that there is no excuse for an AAF, however small.

The fact that the IOC and WADA appear to be applying such a ‘common sense’ approach without codifying it is bound to rankle with athletes such as Contador. The Spaniard lost his 2010 Tour de France title and was sanctioned with a two-year ban after reporting an AAF for 50pg/ml of clenbuterol, 40 times less than the 2,000pg/ml required to produce an active effect.

The problem is one of science outpacing regulation. As detection levels improve and scientists are able to detect minute traces of substances prohibited at all times by WADA, then the risk of an AAF increases – especially from reanalysis, where contamination cannot be proven.

“We acknowledge that the clenbuterol meat contamination issue is unsatisfactory,” said Olivier Niggli, WADA’s Director General, in a statement. “Accordingly, since 2011, the Agency has carried out several research studies aimed at providing analytical means to distinguish ingestion of clenbuterol by pharmacological origin versus that of meat contamination. We will continue to invest in scientific research to try to solve this issue as quickly as possible. However, in the meantime, we maintain that disciplinary proceedings against athletes with low level urinary concentrations, from countries known for significant risk of exposure, would have little to no prospect of success; and, would be very unfair to the athletes concerned.”

That may by the case, however WADA’s statement admits that there have been hundreds of clenbuterol cases and the fact that it chose not to sanction ‘a number of cases of athletes from a number of countries and from a number of different sports’ is unlikely to appease athletes such as Contador, who have had to serve a ban due to a minute concentration of clenbuterol that has no active effect. The Prohibited List is published each year, presenting plenty of time to have introduced a threshold.

It is now likely that each athlete that has served a sanction will be re-examining the level of clenbuterol in their sample. The IOC and WADA could be facing meldonium 2.0

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