What a farce! Five Mexican national team players suspended for taking a banned drug. Well, not quite. Suspended because a drug test found traces of the banned drug clenbuterol in their urine.
Not for the first time, the Byzantine convolutions of the anti-drug regulations, in search of the impossible (drug-free sports), have given us instead a prime example of anti-fair play.
Actually, no. The problem is not that the regulations (those of WADA, the World Anti-Doping Agency) are insanely complicated. It is that WADA, in an effort to avoid those very complications, has reduced its regulations to nothing more than a list of banned drugs. If a drug -- or an isomer of that drug, or a derivative of that drug, or even a possible derivative that hasn’t been synthesized yet -- is on the list then woe betide an athlete who’s found with even a trace of that drug in his body.
He is immediately, without a trial, judged to be guilty, and could face a lengthy ban. Never mind that he may have ingested the drug quite innocently, even unknowingly ... that makes no difference. Guilty! is the verdict, Guilty! -- until he can prove himself innocent. A sequence of events that runs obscenely counter to everything that forms the very heart and soul of the legal system in this country ... where the “innocent until proved guilty” requirement is always held up as a basic civil right.
The case of the Mexicans highlights everything that is wrong with the WADA approach -- indeed, with the approach to drug-testing in sports, and with the wider problem of “illegal” drugs in general. There is an element of the witch-hunt about the WADA approach, a sniff of self-righteousness that gives the WADA boffins the right to make sweeping, utterly simplistic, judgments in a enormously complicated field.
Looked at from the WADA point of view, we have five Mexican players -- none of them, as far as I know, with a history of drug usage -- who are now guilty of cheating and face being banned. Those players have no protection at all -- they have already been named, their names released to the media. They have been tarred, with little or no justification.
We are asked to believe that five players suddenly decided to take clenbuterol in the middle of a major tournament. Possible? Of course. Likely? I think not. In fact, especially not likely when one looks at the situation more closely.
Clenbuterol is a drug that is widely available -- it turns up in a number of over-the-counter food supplements (and it may turn up in more than we know about, because labeling requirements on such products are far from stringent, and vary from country to country anyway). It is also used as an additive to the diets of farm animals: in cattle, pigs, and poultry it produces a leaner, less fatty meat, helping to maximize profits.
This is a fact that is widely known. There have been cases, in China, of illness being produced in people who have eaten clenbuterol-contaminated pork, suggesting pretty high-dosage use by farmers. It is also reported that anti-drug authorities in Germany have warned that eating meat products from Mexico carries a risk of ingesting clenbuterol.
The likelihood, then, is that the Mexicans ate contaminated flesh of some sort. Possibly the Mexican authorities were lax in not testing the food, a notion that raises the prospect of a whole new set of complicated drug tests ... on each and every one of a team’s meals.
The drug-testers, so ready to release the players’ names, are less forthcoming with other details. How many players were tested? If only the accused five were tested, that raises the possibility that more tests would have produced more positives -- indeed, that the whole team might have tested positive. Which is what one would expect if they’d all eaten the same contaminated meal. So why not test everyone? Would mass-positives prove innocence? Not by WADA’s tortured reckoning. On the contrary it would prove that the entire team would have to be suspended.
There is also the key factor of dosage. Last year the Spanish cyclist Alberto Contador -- three-time Tour de France winner -- tested positive for clenbuterol. He protested his innocence, claiming that the only explanation was that the traces of drug had come from contaminated meat. It was soon revealed -- by the International Cycling Union -- that the amount of clenbuterol detected in Contador’s urine was “400 times less” than the lowest limit that WADA tests require. After months of hearings, Contador was cleared of doping but claimed -- not unreasonably -- that “irreparable damage” had been done to his reputation.
For the moment, WADA is getting away with this sort of high-handed “justice” -- but one wonders how long that can continue. WADA sees itself as some sort of holy avenger, protecting sports at all costs from the deadly dragon of drugs -- and entitled to ride roughshod over human rights while it does so.
The case of the five Mexicans merely underlines the dangers involved in that approach. The accusation against the players, let it be clearly understood, is NOT that they knowingly took performance enhancing drugs. WADA has found that charge far too difficult to prove. The charge is simply that traces of a banned drug were detected by a drug test.
Intentionality does not come into it. Even if you went out of your way to avoid drugs, you’re guilty. And -- get this -- even if your deadliest enemy found a way of secretly administering a minute dosage of a banned drug to you -- you’re still guilty. And, as Contador, complained, even if you’re later cleared, the damage has been done.
For now, it is up to today’s Concacaf hearing to restore some sense to the situation by over-riding the ban on the players. Which would mean ignoring WADA commandments. If it does not do that, then it is accepting, for the moment, that the players are guilty, that there are at least five players on the Mexican team who are trying to drug their way to victory. And where would that decision leave Sunday’s result -- Mexico’s 5-0 win over El Salvador? How could that be considered untainted?
By upholding the suspensions -- even if it allows the suspended players to be replaced on the roster -- Concacaf would be falsifying its own tournament. Something that is more than likely to be made painfully clear when subsequent investigations reveal that the cause of the positive drug tests was contaminated food.