Excuses, Excuses (Anti-Doping, Part 2)

We’ve heard odd doping excuses over the years, some documented here.  Let me mention a few others.  Sprinter Justin Gatlin blamed a masseuse with a grudge. Amateur cyclist Chuck Coyle blamed identity theft. Long distance runner Dieter Baumann blamed his toothpaste. Sprinter Dennis Mitchell said it was a combination of five bottles of beer and at least four sexual encounters with his wife on the same night (per Mitchell: “it was her birthday, the lady deserved a treat”).  When cyclist Frank Vandenbrouke was found with a banned substance, a drug sometimes used to treat asthma, Frank said the drug was for his dog.  Cyclist Ivan Basso used the “procrastination” excuse — when he was caught with performance enhancing drugs, he said that he was planning to dope but hadn’t gotten around to it yet.

Here’s an all-time great excuse: Cuban high jumper Javier Sotomayor blamed his doping test result on the Cuban-American mafia.  Actually, that wasn’t his excuse.  That was the excuse offered up in his defense by Cuban President Fidel Castro.

Please don’t misunderstand me; these excuses may be crazy, but some of them could be valid.  OK, I refuse to believe the business about the Cuban-American mafia.  But German police actually DID find steroids in Dieter Baumann’s toothpaste.  For reasons I cannot explain, USA Track and Field DID believe that the right combination of sex and beer could confuse the drug testers (the IAAF ultimately rejected this excuse).

Why do so many of these excuses sound so crazy?  Let’s put these crazy excuses into context.

There are basic principles governing all anti-doping programs.   The most important of these principles is “strict liability”.  With strict liability, all that’s necessary for an anti-doping violation is proof that a highly addictive substance was found in an athlete’s system.  The anti-doping forces need not prove how the substance got into the athlete’s system or whether the substance actually enhanced the athlete’s performance.  “Strict liability” means that the athlete can be sanctioned even if the doping was accidental, like the steroids in the toothpaste.

Strict liability also means that there are few reasons an athlete can offer to excuse his doping. Under baseball’s Joint Drug Program, an athlete can avoid punishment if he can prove that his doping “was not due to his fault or negligence.”  The Code adopted by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) is even stricter: under the WADA Code, an athlete can get a reduced punishment if he can prove that he or she bears “no significant fault or negligence”.  Cutting through the legalese, the only way an athlete can avoid strict liability is in the “exceptional” case where the doping was accidental and where the athlete can show that he or she was careful to avoid accidental doping.

You might be surprised to learn how careful an athlete need be to avoid accidental doping.  Prohibited stimulants and glucocorticosteroids are found in eye drops, ear drops, nasal sprays, diet aids and remedies for colds and headaches.  There are doping products in some energy drinks, protein shakes, nutritional supplements and herbal remedies.  The US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) recommends that athletes try to avoid nutritional supplements altogether:

[A] growing number of supplement products contain dangerous and undisclosed ingredients, including steroids, stimulants and other dangerous drugs. One major issue is that unscrupulous companies are marketing supplements spiked with these dangerous substances, taking advantage of many consumers’ desires for maximized sport performance or aesthetic improvements, and advertising them as healthy and safe products when they’re not.

As support, USADA offers the following statistics:

[T]here are hundreds of supplement products currently available that contain one or more of approximately 20 to 25 designer steroids alone. For example, in a 2004 study funded by the International Olympic Committee, 18.8 percent of the 245 supplements analyzed from the United States were found positive for steroids. In a 2007 HFL study, of the 54 supplements that were analyzed for stimulants, 6 were positive (11.1 percent); of the 52 supplements analyzed for steroids, 13 were positive (25 percent).

USADA makes it clear to athletes: the use of vitamins, minerals, herbs, amino acids, proteins, energy products and other dietary supplements “is completely at your own risk of committing an anti-doping violation.” This is no idle threat.  Most of the anti-doping cases brought by USADA target athletes who admit that their doping test results were valid; the issue in these cases is whether the doping was accidental.

Unfortunately for the accidental doper, doping by accident is usually punished the same way as intentional doping.  This is a key feature of the “strict liability” I described earlier.  Strict liability means that the athlete is potentially responsible for everything that enters his or her body, intentionally or not.  Strict liability means that legitimate excuses are hard to come by.

The anti-doping agencies will not accept excuses unless they can be proven.  This is a perfectly reasonable requirement until you think about this requirement from the standpoint of the accused athlete.  When an athlete dopes accidentally, the athlete is not going to know how the doping happened: was it something he ate, or drank, or was it something else?  You can see athletes fumbling for excuses when they are first accused of a doping violation: maybe it was the bourbon and beer, or the spaghetti sauce, or the “male enhancement” product.  If the doping was accidental, the athlete isn’t going to know right away what caused the accident.  If the doping was accidental, the athlete may never figure out what caused his positive doping test.

But even if the athlete can cross this first hurdle and figure out the accidental cause for the failed doping test, the anti-doping rules set up a second hurdle to cross: the athlete must show “no significant fault or negligence”; that is, the athlete must prove that he or she took reasonable precautions to avoid the accidental doping.  This second hurdle effectively eliminates the likely excuses, such as the “steroids in the shake” excuse offered by Adrian Nieto.  We’ve already discussed, it’s no excuse to accidentally drink the wrong shake, or take the wrong cold remedy, or swallow the wrong pill from the wrong bottle purchased at the local GNC.

With strict liability, the likely excuses do not work.  With strict liability, the only excuses that might work are the unlikely excuses.

You may be starting to see how strict liability creates a sort of Catch-22.  An athlete who accidentally dopes must prove both how the doping substance entered his body and that the circumstances of that accidental doping were unlikely.  Proving both things at the same time can be tricky. If the athlete offers up a likely excuse (i.e., the banned drug was in my herbal supplement), the anti-doping agency may believe the excuse, but they’ll reject the excuse because the athlete was careless (everyone knows herbal remedies can be contaminated).  If the athlete offers an unlikely excuse (like Gatlin’s vengeful masseuse), the anti-doping agency may simply refuse to take the excuse seriously.  In short: athletes with believable excuses are careless.  Athletes with unbelievable excuses … well, those athletes cannot be believed.

Here’s a great illustration of the Catch-22.  Cyclist Alberto Contador tested positive for the banned drug clenbuterol during last year’s Tour de France.  His excuse: he accidentally ingested clenbuterol in a steak his team purchased for him in Spain. Here’s the problem: clenbuterol was once fed to cows in Europe, but that practice is now prohibited and the presence of clenbuterol in European steak is almost unheard of these days.  In other words, Contador’s excuse is sufficiently unlikely that it might pass the “no significant fault or negligence” test under the WADA Code – who could expect to find a steak in Spain contaminated with clenbuterol?  The presence of clenbuterol in a Spanish steak is unlikely – so unlikely in fact that many people doubt that a Spanish steak could have caused Contador to test positive for clenbuterol.

Contrast Contador’s case with that of Italian cyclist Alessandro Colo.  Colo also tested positive for clenbuterol, during a race held in Mexico.  Colo also blamed his positive test on contaminated steak.  But in Mexico, it may be common for cattle to be treated with clenbuterol … meaning that Colo’s excuse is not unlikely.  Colo’s national anti-doping agency (CONI, in Italy) believes Colo’s excuse — they also think it’s likely that Colo flunked his anti-doping test because he ate a Mexican steak.  They also believe that Colo should have known that Mexican steak is likely to contain clenbuterol.


One other thing: CONI says that if Colo needed to eat protein during his Mexican Tour, he should have avoided Mexican steak and relied instead on protein mixes.

And if Colo’s protein mix was contaminated with performance-enhancing drugs? I’m hoping I don’t have to tell you what would have happened then.

Conclusion: next time you hear an athlete offer up a crazy doping excuse … take a deep breath, and see if you can summon up some sympathy. The excuses offered up by athletes are not the only things crazy about the anti-doping system.

(Addendum: both the Colo and Contador cases are ongoing.  For reasons that are hard to understand given the statements I’ve noted above, CONI is actually pushing for a reduced punishment for Colo: a one year ban instead of the two-year ban that is standard for a first doping offense under the WADA Code.  Contador’s national cycling federation has also recommended the reduced one-year ban for Contador.  I plan to write something longer about Contador’s case in the near future.)

3 thoughts on “Excuses, Excuses (Anti-Doping, Part 2)

  1. Great article Larry. My favorite part was this:

    "Sprinter Dennis Mitchell said it was a combination of five bottles of beer and at least four sexual encounters with his wife on the same night (per Mitchell: “it was her birthday, the lady deserved a treat”)."

    An athlete who actually has sex with his wife? That might be the most unbelievable lie since Senator Larry Craig claimed not to be gay.

    • I liked this part, too. If you've been married for a long time like I've been, there are SO many birthdays, anniversaries, and the like, and sometimes you DO run out of gift ideas.