Results from tests that showed abnormally high levels of plastic residues in Alberto Contador's urine could be used as part of the doping case against the Tour de France winner, even if the tests alone can't prove the entire case, anti-doping authorities say.
Olivier Rabin, the lead scientist at the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), said that the validity of the plastics tests is ironclad but they have not been through enough lab work to be used as stand-alone evidence in a doping case.
Rabin said research is continuing on the plastics tests and new developments could be presented in a case against Contador, which has yet to be scheduled.
The cyclist also tested positive for the steroid clenbuterol, which he says came from contaminated meat that he ate.
Plastic a sign a of blood transfusion
Scientists say high amounts of plastic residue in the urine can be a sign that a person received a blood transfusion, which is banned under WADA rules.
"There are residues. We're sure about this at that level. That's a scientific fact," Rabin said. "How you connect that to doping is the question. Today, we cannot make a 100% connection between high plastic residue in blood to, 'You are doped.' That's what we're working on. Whether that can be validated or not, that's a matter for the future."
Testing that would establish a link is ongoing and good progress is being made, the WADA scientist said. It's not uncommon for newly developed evidence to be brought into doping cases, which often have a different standard for discovery than a traditional American court case.
"It could be part of the evidence," Howman said, when asked if new scientific findings could be quickly dropped into a case.
Rabin said among the hurdles that must be crossed for the plastics test to work as a stand-alone would be for the tests to be repeated successfully at a handful of WADA's 34 accredited labs.
"When we see high plastic residues, we get some indications that, yes, this is very likely related to transfusions," Rabin said.
"But we need to do a little more work to see whether this link is 100%, 95%, 90%. Today, because it's not fully validated, we can use this as an indication. We don't use it as a standard of proof."
In fighting the clenbuterol positive, Contador has called for anti-doping regulations to be revised so small quantities of the muscle-building and fat-burning drug would not count as a positive test; the idea is to prevent people from testing positive after eating tainted meat.
That proposal is being discussed, but Howman said it is "nonsensical," in practice.
"Do you want the people who are cheating to be caught? If so, you have to have a level at which it can be found," Howman said. "This drug has been found in many cases at small levels. To have a threshold, you have to be confident you can set a threshold below which nobody is cheating. That's a hard thing to do."
Not enough pressure
Howman also said WADA wasn't putting any pressure on Spanish authorities to set a date for Contador's hearing. There has been talk that the case could be resolved before Tour de France organisers announce the 2011 route next week.
"We have no expectations," Howman said, recalling that it took about a year to set up the initial hearing for Floyd Landis, who lost his 2006 title because of doping. "They'll have the hearing when everyone's ready to be heard."
Howman said the future of cycling, a sport that has been steadily hammered by doping cases over the last decade, rests more in the hands of the riders than the people who police the sport.
He said cycling's international federation (UCI) should get credit for being the only sport that has implemented so-called passport testing, a method widely viewed as more effective because it gauges athletes against their own blood profiles instead of arbitrary numbers.
"UCI runs an extensive anti-doping program. That doesn't stop cyclists from trying to beat them," Howman said. "They're doing a pretty good job. What they're let down by is people who are competing in the sport and cheating."
(Sapa, Eddie Pells, October 2010)