Did The IOC "Bury" Positive Jamaican Sprinter Doping Tests? It's Complicated

News report out of Germany once again illustrates the IOC's and WADA's inconsistencies toward Clenbuterol.

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Apr 3 2017, 8:00pm

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

You guys are never going to believe this, but the IOC screwed up again. The news this time, reported by German news agency ARD, is that last year, the IOC took steps to bury positive doping tests taken from Jamaican runners during the 2008 Beijing Olympics. ARD reports that clenbuterol was detected in "several" Jamaican sprinters' urine samples. ARD does not say whether any of the samples belonged to Usain Bolt, but does make a point to add that some of the samples were from male runners. Regardless, there's some very sketchy stuff going on here.

Let's back up for a second. Recent advances in testing methods have allowed labs to detect clenbuterol in much lower quantities than before, which is why the re-testing is being done. Reportedly, the IOC specifically ordered the lab doing the re-testing, in Lausanne, to alert them of any positives before alerting the athletes and the sport's governing bodies. (Quick aside: the Lausanne lab is also accused of having destroyed 67 samples provided by Russian athletes before London 2012.) In the case of the Jamaican sprinters, the IOC told the lab not to re-test the samples or alert the athletes of the adverse findings.

None of the above is in dispute. The IOC admits clenbuterol was found in the samples but declined to pursue the cases. Why did they do that? That's the question.

Clenbuterol, when not helping our Olympic athletes reach new peaks of excellence, is used to bolster meat production in many countries, including China, where the 2008 Olympics were held. The IOC's position, as told to ARD, is that clenbuterol was found in such small quantities that they could not rule out food contamination. The levels of clenbuterol were so low, according to the IOC, that they did not think the case would pass muster in any kind of legal proceeding, which is why WADA agreed to not pursue the positive tests further. WADA Director General Olivier Niggli told ARD that this was less than ideal from their point of view, but the meat contamination issue offered a ready excuse that the IOC nor WADA had any evidence to contradict.

This explanation raises many further questions. First of all, the whole point of doing re-testing is that clenbuterol can now be detected in much lower quantities. Why even bother re-testing if the IOC's confidence in the test is so low they view it as indefensible in the Court of Arbitration for Sport?

Still, there's an even bigger, more fundamental problem with the IOC's logic. WADA's code is quite clear that clenbuterol is a non-threshold drug, meaning any amount of it in an athlete's sample should trigger an adverse finding. Legally speaking, just that simple.

This makes the whole "contaminated meat" story irrelevant. Even in the unlikely case the Jamaican athletes did eat contaminated meat—the organizers of the 2008 Games took many precautions to ensure the meat was clean, and the Jamaican team even flew in their own meat from home to ensure the same—it doesn't matter. Athletes get positive tests for contaminated supplements and foods all the time. They take their case to CAS at great personal expense and, if the arbitrators find the athletes' case plausible, they reduce the ban.

In fact, the concept of "strict liability"—that the athlete is responsible for any positive test regardless of, as the WADA website says, "whether or not the athlete intentionally or unintentionally used a prohibited substance or was negligent or otherwise at fault"—is one of WADA's founding principles. It is not WADA's role—and especially not the IOC's—to make judgment calls in this regard.

Now, all of that being said, WADA has been extremely inconsistent about actually doing that whole "strict liability" thing with clenbuterol. In 2011, WADA and FIFA jointly decided not to pursue clenbuterol cases against "scores" of soccer players. In 2013, UCI, cycling's governing body, decided to do the same for Michael Rogers. VeloNews has a helpful rundown (from 2011) of how different clenbuterol cases all yielded different sanctions.

The difference is that in all of those cases, the labs followed the adverse finding protocols, alerting the athletes to the positive tests, at which point WADA, the sport's governing body, and the athlete discussed the case in some form or fashion. Some went to CAS, others didn't. Either way, everyone got a chance to present their evidence before moving forward.

The main takeaway from this ARD report is not whether the Jamaican sprinters cheated. We can't possibly know that from the evidence provided. It's also not that the IOC "buried" positive tests. Instead, the takeaway is that the IOC and WADA didn't follow basic protocol for whatever reason, because they have rarely followed their own rules when it comes to clenbuterol. This is horribly unfair not just to the Jamaican athletes who never got a chance to formally present a defense, but every other athlete who has had their careers hang in the balance of these arbitrary decisions.

Scores of athletes' careers have been ruined by unknowingly ingesting banned substances from contaminated supplements or foods. In every case, WADA fights the athlete in court to uphold the notion of strict liability. Why did the IOC and WADA take the exact opposite approach here? What makes the Jamaican sprinters the exception to a well-established and codified rule? Your guess is as good as mine.