THE World Boxing Council (WBC) last week revealed that two Mexican boxers, Rey Vargas and Julio Cesar Martinez, tested positive for clenbuterol but they would be forgiven due to new rulings from the World Anti-Doping Association (WADA).

It seemed like a strange move on the surface, particularly from the Mexico-based organisation who have made significant progress with their Clean Boxing Program – which demands their champions and highest ranked fighters are subject to random testing from the Voluntary Anti-Doping Association (VADA). It was VADA, a combat sports testing agency but not a regulatory body, who carried out the tests on Vargas and Martinez.

Due to widespread use of clenbuterol in Mexican livestock, new legal clenbuterol thresholds were introduced in June by WADA (who oversee the testing for all Olympic sports but professional boxing is not officially under their signatory). Therefore, the ruling goes, low levels of clenbuterol found in athletes will be recorded and monitored but not immediately deemed a crime. Instead, it will be presumed the steroid was accidentally ingested while further tests are recommended. Innocent until proven guilty, if you will.

The case of Saul “Canelo” Alvarez is perhaps the most infamous example of an athlete claiming contaminated meat was the reason for failing a drug test. Alvarez was suspended from the sport for six months by the Nevada State Athletic Commission after flunking two tests in February 2018. If these new rules had been in place back then, Canelo would have faced no action.

Canelo Alvarez
Canelo remains boxing’s most famous clenbuterol case (Joe Camporeale/USA Today Sports)

Neither Vargas, the WBC bantamweight champ, or Martinez, the organisation’s No.1 flyweight contender, will face punishment after the WBC deemed the amounts of clenbuterol were “so small” that no action was required. Both fighters will be subject to extra testing in the future.

“The amounts found in the tests are not sufficient to register any performance-enhancing benefit,” the WBC stated. “The muscle-forming drug is commonly found in many meat products throughout Mexico. Both Vargas and Martinez said that there was no conscious or deliberate intent to take clenbuterol.

“Previous positive tests for clenbuterol have been registered by Saul ‘Canelo’ Alvarez and Francisco ‘Bandido’ Vargas, also in very small amounts meaning accidental ingestion via food.”

It’s concerning that clenbuterol, which promotes muscle growth, can now so easily be justified. While it is of course perfectly feasible that very small amounts can come from accidental ingestion, it is also possible that very small amounts will be detected if a cheating athlete is at the beginning or end of their ‘cycle’. Which, we’re told, is why WADA recommend that anyone testing positive for tiny traces of clenbuterol should be subject to further testing.

When talking to Boxing News, WBC president Maurico Sulaiman accepted that his organisation’s stance would invite criticism. However, he strongly objected to the notion that the WBC were simply turning a blind eye to fighters who had tested positive for the fat-stripping steroid and, more specifically, Mexican fighters.

“The problem in Mexico with clenbuterol is widespread and it’s not just boxers who are testing positive [for clenbuterol], it’s athletes from all sports,” Sulaiman told BN.

“We believe this move from WADA goes some way to clearing up the confusion when it comes to clenbuterol and we’re happy to acknowledge the standard set with a higher threshold.

“Certain members of the media will always presume the worst. They will presume we have not researched this issue extensively for years when of course we have dedicated so much time to it. Ultimately, though, this rule was created independently by WADA, not the WBC.

“We are happy to acknowledge the new standard set by WADA. Too often we hear of adverse findings in tests and the boxers’ names are tarnished before any investigations have been carried out.”

Charlie Edwards
Julio Cesar Martinez lines up an illegal shot (Action Images/Reuters/Andrew Couldridge)

Sulaiman certainly has a point. Due to the performance-enhancing drug culture that boxing operates in, any failed tests are immediately presumed to be down to cheating and nothing else. Guilty until proven innocent is very much the order of the land.

Which of course is another problem. There would appear to be no way to prove innocence in these cases. WADA’s new rulings does certainly generate some wiggle room. But it would be untrue to suggest WADA are looking to do any favours to athletes. It is interesting to note that in 2017, according to WADA’s Anti-Doping Testing Figures, there were 294 cases when clenbuterol triggered adverse findings in tests across all sports, making the drug the most commonly discovered among the anabolic agents.

The substance made the news in 2011 when over 100 footballers tested positive for clenbuterol at the Under-17 World Cup in Mexico. It seemed highly unlikely that such a vast number of young footballers had knowingly taken the drug. Subsequent investigations, ordered by FIFA, revealed that 30 per cent of the food samples taken from the hotels where the players were staying contained traces of clenbuterol.

FIFA’s determination to get to the bottom of the findings was crucial in developing an understanding of the situation. In boxing, though, there is no such hierarchy, which only heightens the sense of chaos and controversy. At least the WBC made the results of the Vargas and Martinez tests public and explained their justification, whether right or wrong, for letting them off the hook.

Yet for as long as there is no overriding body and no universal rules, confusion will remain. Even the roles of the various anti-doping agencies are not clear cut.

When Boxing News asked VADA’s hugely respected Dr Margaret Goodman if she agreed with WADA’s new ruling, she said simply, “Not VADA’s role.”

Indeed, Goodman and VADA are focused on the testing and the results, not the punishment – or lack of. By revealing that both Martinez and Vargas had clenbuterol in their system, Goodman and VADA had carried out their end of the bargain.

The crux must be the punishment – the deterrent – otherwise the positive tests will only increase. WADA’s ruling, as understandable as it is, does seem to skew the issue of athletes taking complete responsibility for what goes into their bodies.

When asked to explain the relationship between WADA and VADA, Goodman said: “WADA is an organisation that oversees the WADA code developed to promote clean sport. This includes all Olympic sports. Professional boxing is not a WADA signatory or under the WADA code. VADA was also developed to promote clean sport – but we are confined at this time to combat sports. Combat sports, for the most part, are under specific commissions.”

Lots of commissions. Lots of rules. Lots of loopholes.