My scientific background leaves me more inclined to trust laboratory results than people, and I'm no more inclined to give athletes the benefit of the doubt in doping cases than anyone else who's been paying attention over the last couple of decades. When I heard that Jessica Hardy had tested positive for a banned substance at the Olympic Trials, and most likely will not get to swim in the olympics, I wasn't really surprised. Swimming hasn't been plagued with the same sort of doping scandals that other sports have seen, but it would be shocking if there weren't at least a few cheaters out there waiting to get caught. That's why there are tests. Someone tested positive? Toss them off the team and move on.
But when I took a few minutes to read the full story, something didn't make sense. I looked at a couple of more stories, and the situation made even less sense. At this point, I'm hopelessly confused, but I'm going to keep writing this anyway. If you keep reading, one of two things will probably (hopefully) happen: either you'll be able to spot something I missed, and unconfuse me in the comments, or you'll join me in confusion and the hope that someone else will be able to clear this one up for us.
Here are the facts, as far as they've been reported so far:
A drug test was conducted on Jessica Hardy following her 4th place finish in the 100 M freestyle at the Olympic Trials on July 4th. There's an international standard that governs how these tests are carried out, so we know that the sample was immediately divided into two sub-samples, both of which were sealed while the swimmer watched. The test panel that was carried out on the first sample came back positive for the presence of clenbuterol. The second sample was tested, and the positive was confirmed.
Clenbuterol is a banned anabolic agent and stimulant. It's a long-acting beta-2 andrenergic agonist, with a half-life of about 36 hours. In the US, it's approved only for the treatment of respiratory disease in horses, but it's often abused as a weight-loss drug. It's also been used by anabolic steroid abusers as a way to maintain muscle mass when they are not taking the steroids.
In addition to the test that was conducted on July 4th, Hardy was also tested following her win in the 100 M breaststroke on July 1st, and after her 2nd place finish in the 50 M freestyle on the 6th. Those two tests came back clean. And that's where things get really confusing.
I'm not trying to argue that it makes no sense for her to have taken a banned substance after winning a race and making it onto the team. It doesn't, but I've seen far too many allegedly intelligent people do really stupid things for that particular argument to fly.
No, what doesn't make sense here is the timing. The negative-positive-negative results on the three tests during the trials can only be explained if she took the drug after the first test, before the second test, and long enough before the third test that the dose had entirely cleared her system. I haven't been able to find a reliable source for the length of time that clenbuterol is expected to remain detectable, but I did find multiple pro-steroid use websites that say that the detection window is 2-4 days. That seems reasonable, given the 36-hour half-life.
It's possible that she took the drug on the 4th, and that it cleared her system before she was screened on the 6th, but that requires that the drug cleared her system in essentially the absolute minimum time expected. But if she was taking the drug for the short-term benefits (which is the only reason to take the drug during a competition), it makes no sense - from a cheating standpoint - for her to have taken the drug on the 2nd or 3rd. She swam no events at all on the 2nd, and she had no finals on the 3rd.
This whole thing is a mystery to me, and as much as I hate mysteries, I don't think this one's likely to be solved or end well. It's very, very, very unlikely that the results are a false positive. The two sample screening addresses that issue well. As unlikely as the scenario for intentional use seems in this case, the confirmed positive lab test places the burden of proof firmly on the athlete, which means that it's highly unlikely that she's going to be swimming in China on the 10th. I'm not sure that we're ever going to know what really went on in this case. But if you've got any ideas, please let me know.