Jessica Hardy Clenbuterol Positive and Unfair Media Coverage

Millard Baker@millardbakerCorrespondent IJuly 25, 2008

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I am disappointed by the mainstream media coverage of Olympic swimmer Jessica Hardy’s failed drug test for clenbuterol (an asthma medication).

NBC was apparently the first news organization to identify the banned substance as clenbuterol. They did not elaborate on the drug other than to identify it as a “stimulant” which was of course very misleading.

Clenbuterol was not identified as an asthma medication. It was not revealed that numerous other Olympic swimmers are permitted to use similar asthma drugs as long as they have a therapeutic use exemption (TUE). In all fairness to Jessica Hardy, this information should be provided at the outset to provide the appropriate context for any story about her positive test.

Washington Post Staff Writer Amy Shipley regularly writes about doping in sports, so I was very disappointed that Shipley failed to specifically identify clenbuterol as an asthma medication. She did not mention that other Olympic swimmers are allowed to use similar asthma drugs. In fact, there was not a single instance of the word ‘asthma’ in her 600+ word article. 

Shipley certainly did not identify clenbuterol as belonging to a therapeutic class of drugs known as beta-2 agonists or long-acting beta-2 adrenergic agonists (LABAs). But she identified clenbuterol in various other sensationalistic ways (”Hardy’s Positive Test Rocks Swimming,” July 25).

  • “banned stimulant”
  • “abused for its weight-loss properties”
  • “abused in the bodybuilding community for years”
  • “considered a weight-loss aid”
  • “bodybuilders take it to make themselves look cut”

Associated Press (AP) sports writer Beth Harris waited halfway through her article before reporting that clenbuterol is “approved in some countries” for the treatment of asthma and is “not an anabolic steroid” (”Swimmer Hardy tests positive for little-known drug,” July 24).

Harris initially identifies clenbuterol only as a “banned anabolic agent” not ruling out the possibility that the banned substance was a type of anabolic steroid. In all fairness to Ms. Harris, WADA includes clenbuterol in the “anabolic agents” category along with anabolic steroids and human growth hormone.

She then suggests that Hardy’s failed clenbuterol test is similar to swimmer Jessica Foschi’s failed steroid test in 1995 (again suggesting that clenbuterol could be a steroid). The only similarities appear to be the fact that they are both female swimmers and they both failed a drug test.

The AP article includes several quotes from the famed “steroid hunter” Don Catlin who reveals he is becoming increasing out of touch with doping by athletes.

“It’s a complex drug,” said Dr. Don Catlin, who oversaw testing for anabolic agents at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and who ran the country’s first anti-doping lab at UCLA for 25 years. “We know very little about it.”

Clenbuterol has actually been used extensively by athletes and bodybuilders for over 15 years; clenbuterol and various other LABAs have been studied extensively over this time frame for their effects on performance. 

Don Catlin also who takes the opportunity to demonize clenbuterol discussing its toxicity by referencing the “epidemics” it caused.

“It can be pretty toxic,” Catlin said. “There have been some epidemics where human beings have ingested it by ingesting meat and that has given them some pretty bad reactions. That’s surely one of the reasons it doesn’t get into the U.S.”

Catlin makes clenbuterol seem like a scary drug but don’t forget that WADA and FDA approved LABA drugs have similar side effects and even include some “black box warnings.” Olympic swimmers can still use these “scary” drugs (as long as they have a therapeutic use exemption).

Clenbuterol is not a “little known” or “little-used” drug as suggested by the headline attached to the AP story by USA Today and ESPN, respectively. The San Francisco Chronicle sensationalizes the Hardy’s positive test with a headline stating ”tainted test had horse medication.”

I don’t know what to say about Michael Lohberg. He is the swimming coach of Dara Torres.

“I don’t think we will ever have a clean sport,” he said. “The testers can only find what they are looking for and there will always be people in this world for whatever reason - fame, money - will always find ways to cheat and be ahead of everyone else.”

The irony is that swimmer Dara Torres makes no secret of her use of albuterol and formoterol; these drugs have practically identical performance enhancing effects as clenbuterol. Dara Torres has a therapeutic use exemption.

Regrettably, no one in mainstream media is connecting the dots and providing the full backdrop for the use of asthma medications in elite swimming.

Jessica Hardy deserves to have her alleged use of a banned asthma medication placed in the proper context.

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Jessica Hardy Clenbuterol Positive and Unfair Media Coverage

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