The Best, Most Dubious Excuses of the World’s All-Time Dopers
From turtle blood to contact highs, our favorite PED "explanations," ranked
A story published Saturday in the UK’s Sunday Times accuses Nike Oregon Project coach Alberto Salazar of testing performance-enhancing drugs on his athletes. The piece comes nearly two years after a bombshell report by journalist David Epstein into the gray-zone practices of the Salazar running group. Following Epstein’s report, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) initiated an investigation into Salazar, documents relating to which were leaked by the Russian-affiliate hacking group Fancy Bear and made available to the Times.
While we await the outcome of the USADA case, we decided to compile the best, most dubious doping-related excuses in sports history.
The “Tainted Meat” Excuse
Former three-time Tour de France winner Alberto Contador lost his 2010 title after clenbuterol was discovered in a sample he submitted following that year’s 16th stage. Two days after his notification, Contador asserted that “the origin of the Prohibited Substance must have been contaminated meat,” according to the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) report. The agency promptly debunked the defense, saying that among a “high percentage of probabilities,” that scenario was “unlikely.” Contador is not the only athlete to blame faulty meat for concerning samples. In January 2017, CrossFit Games competitor Charis Chan testified that the ground beef she purchased from Target was responsible for a metabolite of an anabolic steroid ending up in her sample.
The “Secondhand Weed” Excuse
Canadian snowboarder Ross Rebagliati briefly relinquished his country’s—and the Olympic Games’—first-ever giant slalom gold medal in 1998 after popping on a urine test for marijuana. He famously contested the findings by suggesting he’d been around people smoking weed but hadn’t smoked it himself since the year before the Olympics (part of his strict prep regimen). Rebagliati would later reclaim his gold after a unanimous ruling by the Court of Arbitration for Sport, but he has never fully distanced himself from the green. In fact, Rebagliati even parlayed his infamy into a signature cannabis brand: Ross’ Gold.
The “Penis Pills” Excuse
ED seems to be a common plight among elite athletes. Or that’s at least what mixed martial arts and Ultimate Fighting Championship star Jon “Bones” Jones, U.S. sprinter LaShawn Merritt, and Italian cyclist Mauro Santambrogio would tell you. All three blamed male-enhancement products for their abnormal samples that led to doping accusations.
The “Turtle Blood and Caterpillar Fungus” Excuse
In the 1990s, Chinese women dominated distance running the way East African women do today. Nicknamed “Ma’s Army” after their coach, Ma Junren, the women set records at many distances, from 1,500 meters to 10,000 meters, some of which still stand. Junren attributed their success to high mileage and a diet of turtle blood and caterpillar fungus. But, as of last year, the athletes told a different story. According to a signed statement hidden from the media for 19 years, a powerful combo of forced illegal drug injections and fear of shaming their country led to their wins.
The “Evil Twin” Excuse
U.S. cyclist Tyler Hamilton took fourth place in the 2003 Tour de France, despite suffering a broken collarbone halfway through the race. Later, that feat would be questioned when a blood test showed stem cells other than his own. Rather than admit to doping—where a person intravenously adds red blood cells to boost oxygen-carrying capacity—Hamilton’s team argued that his results were actually caused by an absorbed unborn twin in utero, which would explain the two different types of blood.
Yes, there is some science to back that up: “That’s certainly a way in which a result like Hamilton’s could happen,” says David Housman, a cancer researcher at MIT, who testified on Hamilton’s behalf in 2005. After Hamilton’s later admission that he had in fact doped and did not have an unborn twin to blame for his blood test results, Housman’s frustration didn’t displace the medical possibility of this phenomenon: “I’m not too pleased with the case,” Housman told Outside, “but that’s the way it goes. The science remains the same.”
The “Sex Four Times, Plus Five Beers” Excuse
American sprinter Dennis Mitchell blamed having sex with his wife four separate times and consuming five beers the night before a drug test for the high testosterone levels found in his samples. “It was her birthday,” he said. “The lady deserved a treat.” While U.S.A. Track and Field bought it and cleared him of charges, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) wasn’t convinced and smacked Mitchell with a two-year ban in 1999. He is currently in a long-term coaching relationship with accused two-time doper Justin Gatlin.
The “Deflection” Excuse
Just two weeks out from Sebastian Coe’s 2015 election as IAAF president, German and UK media outlets joined forces to question the organization. The joint statement published in the Sunday Times declared that the group had not followed up on hundreds of suspicious doping tests. Rather than taking this evidence seriously, Coe called the reports “a declaration of war on my sport.” Coe could have addressed the slow but steady conflation of “his sport” with doping by coming out hard against PED use. Instead, he took a hard-line defensive stance that would prove to be misguided in the years to come.