Anti-doping authorities stripped cyclist Alberto Contador of his 2010 Tour de France victory this week, calling it a victory for fair play. But experts say the case against the Spaniard left unanswered questions about whether officials can trip up blood dopers by looking for traces of plastic compounds in the human body.
On Monday, the Switzerland-based Court for Arbitration for Sport ruled Contador could not explain his failed test for clenbuterol, an endurance-boosting drug that Contador claimed he picked up while eating a piece of contaminated beef during the French race.
Contador's case took nearly two years and cost millions of dollars. His attorneys said that the amount of clenbuterol in his system -- 50 picograms (trillionths) per milliliter in his urine -- was so tiny that only one lab in Europe could measure it. But the judges ruled that legal standard was that any amount of clenbuterol, no matter how small, violated the rules.
The 98-page ruling, however, throws into doubt a second kind of test that authorities were hoping to use to catch cheaters: this one for something called plasticizers. Plasticizers are compounds that make plastics squishy. The lab testing Contador found both clenbuterol, as well as high levels of di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP), an industrial chemical which is also found in medical devices, like intravenous bags and plastic tubing that could indicate blood doping by riders.
The problem is that DEHP and other phthalates are also commonly used in PVC piping, floor tiles, meat wrappers and kids' toys, according to Charles Pelkey, an attorney and journalist who has been following cycling and doping for the past two decades. Plasticizers "are also possibly in plastic water bottles you would find on a bicycle," Pelkey said from his office in Laramie, Wyo.
Pelkey notes that as the science of anti-doping gets tougher on would-be cheaters, so too do the standards of proof for authorities.
"There are a couple of problems with the plasticizer test," Pelkey said. "And it's not entirely clear what standard they would apply. There's a lot of environmental exposure (to plastics)."
The judges ruled that the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), the group pursuing Contador's case, did not establish a link between the high levels of plasticizers in his body and the possibility that he was injecting himself with blood from an IV bag -- a common practice among some cyclists at the high levels of the sport.
It's not that the test for plasticizers is new, according to Pelkey. The problem is that cycling and anti-doping authorities haven't agreed on a "certified" test on precisely what levels of plasticizers would come from the environment versus medical devices.
Officials at WADA headquarters in Montreal and the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency in Colorado Springs, Colo., could not be reached for comment.
Meanwhile, authorities in London are ramping up their efforts to catch potential cheats at the Olympic games. David Cowan, the games' top drug scientist, told the UK Guardian that he expects to be analyzing more than 6,250 blood and urine samples during the two and a half-week event.
"It would be foolish to say these Olympics would be drug-free but my advice to athletes is if they take the risk they will get caught," Cowan told the Guardian. "With 50 percent of the athletes being tested, anybody who does try to cheat will stand a good chance of detection."
The samples will be stored for eight years to allow retrospective testing when new tests for more drugs are developed, such as one for so-called "gene-doping," in which snippets of DNA are injected into athlete's tissue to re-engineer the body's own blood or muscle factories. While still under the radar among most officials, a German track coach was busted trying to obtain an experimental gene therapy drug called Repoxygen used to boost blood in anemia patients, while some Chinese doctors were offering similar treatments before the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008.
Since then, WADA has begun funding gene doping research at the University of Florida's Center for Excellence for Reproductive Health Biotechnology. Director Richard Snyder said he expects to have that test ready for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janiero.
"The technology is developed, now we will validate the test using wide variety of athlete samples," Snyder told Discovery News. "That's the last piece of the puzzle left."