With news announced this week that the Spanish Cycling Federation is to hand down a one year ban to Alberto Contador for testing positive for clenbuterol in a sample taken during the 2010 Tour de France, I believe there is at least one issue that raises a concern about justice in this case. At the time news of this positive test result broke (see for example Alberto Contador Positive For Clenbuterol – BikeRadar), I noted one aspect of the case that worried me. A spokesman for the UCI is quoted as saying

“The concentration found by the laboratory was estimated at 50 picograms which is 400 times less than what the antidoping laboratories accredited by WADA (World Anti Doping Agency) must be able to detect,” it said, adding that testing of a second “B” sample taken at the same time confirmed the result.

I have to add that, as I recall, the UCI later revised this from 400-fold to 40-fold.  Nevertheless, I believe this to be problematic in delivering justice in dope testing, chiefly because of the sensitivity in testing.

Let’s assume that Joe Bloggs, a cyclist in another team entirely was tested at a different event. He has a similar (very low) level of clenbuterol in his urine as did Contador.  However, the organisers of his race send the samples to a different testing lab, one which can only detect clenbuterol to the level specified by WADA.  Under these circumstances, Contador comes out positive, but Bloggs does not.

Is that fair?  It does seem to me that where WADA make a specification of the testing sensitivity that accredited labs must deliver, that has to be the limit above which a result is declared positive.  This is important as analytical techniques and equipment continue to be improved, delivering greater sensitivity.

I don’t know whether Contador did dope, and I do applaud the efforts of the UCI, WADA and race organisers to weed out doping, but I do have concerns about how these cases are handled.