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18 Athlete Explanations for Failed Drug Tests

© ART FOXALL/UPI/Landov

Milwaukee Brewers' star Ryan Braun will start in left field on Opening Day. As the reigning National League Most Valuable Player, Braun can take the occasion to thank God, country and family for his blessings as long as he keeps a little gratitude in reserve for baseball arbitrator Shyam Das.

Das registered the tie-breaking vote on Braun's appeal of a 50-game suspension stemming from an Oct. 1 positive drug test for elevated levels of testosterone. Braun didn't dispute the science of his positive test but contested the protocol and chain of custody involved in the handling of his urine sample.

Why? Because it wasn't shipped to the lab in a timely fashion.

The seals on the urine sample arrived intact with Braun's signature confirming the sample was his and was sealed under his watch. And experts reject any possibility that the delay in shipping could've resulted in a negative urine sample suddenly turning positive. But Das sided with Braun and rescinded the suspension.

"There were a lot of things that we learned about the collector, about the collection process, about the way that the entire thing worked that made us very concerned and very suspicious about what could have actually happened," Braun said after arriving at Brewers' spring training camp.

Travis Tygart, CEO of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, rejected Braun's claim and called Das' decision "a real gut-kick to clean athletes."

Braun could well be innocent. His problem from a public relations standpoint is that he's just another in a long line of athletes claiming he did nothing wrong -- some more believably than others.

1. In 2005, American cyclist Tyler Hamilton offered a unique explanation after drug testing officials discovered evidence of blood doping. Hamilton said the different blood found mixed with his own could have come from a "vanishing twin" whom he had absorbed in utero. Thirty-four years earlier.

2. German runner Dieter Baumann, a former Olympic champ in the 5000 meters, tested positive for nandrolone. His two-year suspension cost him the 2000 Summer Olympics. Baumann voluntarily underwent further tests that showed fluctuating amounts of nandrolone in his system depending on the time of day. Baumann's explanation: the nandrolone was in his toothpaste, which obviously had been spiked.

3. Tennis star Petr Korda tested positive at Wimbledon in 1998, claiming the nandrolone in his system came from a veal entree. Some experts estimated he would've had to eat 40 calves a day for 20 years to account for the levels of nandrolone in his system.

4. Five North Korean soccer players tested positive for steroids at the Women's World Cup in 2011. The North Korean delegation claimed the steroids were unknowingly included with traditional Chinese medicines based on musk deer glands.

Why were they taking medicines based on musk deer glands?

The federation said the players needed them to recover from being struck by lightning during training.

5. Cyclist Alberto Contador was stripped of his 2010 Tour de France title after testing positive for clenbuterol. The Court of Arbitration upheld the test findings and banned him for two years. Contador claimed the positive test was caused by eating contaminated meat on a 2010 Tour rest day.

6. Cuban high jumper Javier Sotomayor tested positive for cocaine at the 1999 Pan American Games and was stripped of his gold medal. Cuban dictator Fidel Castro defended him, blaming the sabotage on the "Cuban-American mafia."

7. Fani Halkia, who won gold for Greece in the Olympic 400m hurdles in 2004, tested positive for methyltrienalone in Beijing and was banned from competition for two years. Her story? She blamed it on tampered diet supplements.

Fifteen Greek athletes, including 11 members of the Olympic weightlifting team, were also suspended for methyltrienolone. That's a lot of tampering.

8. In the Way Too Much Information Department, Spanish race walker Daniel Plaza, an Olympic gold medalist, blamed his positive test for nandrolone on having oral sex with his pregnant wife.

9. Spanish cyclist Isabel Moreno disappeared two days before the Beijing Olympics after she allegedly failed a drug test. Moreno's reason for disappearing from the scene? She didn't admit to the positive test, saying instead on her website that she had an anxiety attack and needed to go home.

10. Bulgarian tennis star Sesil Karatancheva attributed one of her two positive tests for nandrolone to being pregnant despite the fact her urine samples showed no evidence of a pregnancy.

11. American track star Dennis Mitchell, part of the 1992 gold medal relay team, claimed his positive test for elevated levels of testosterone came from having five beers and four sexual encounters with his wife the night before a 1998 test.

© Bettmann/CORBIS

12. Ben Johnson (winning above), who famously tested positive for stanozolol at the Seoul Olympics in 1988 after defeating American Carl Lewis for the 100 meters gold medal, blamed his positive test that day on a spiked energy drink. He was banned for life in 1993 after another positive test.

13. Canadian snowboarder Ross Rebagliati tested positive for marijuana after winning gold in the giant slalom at the Nagano Olympics in 1998. He claimed second-hand smoke and was allowed to keep his medal.

14. LaShawn Merritt won gold in 2008 at the Beijing Olympics but was suspended after failing three consecutive tests from October 2009 to January 2010. Merritt was taking ExtenZe, known familiarly as penis enhancement pills. "Any penalty that I may receive for my action will not overshadow the embarrassment and humiliation that I feel inside," Merritt said at the time.

15. Richard Gasquet, a French tennis player, tested positive for cocaine at a tournament in Florida a few years ago. He said he kissed a girl who had ingested cocaine at a nightclub. A tribunal cleared him to return to competition.

16. Baseball's Manny Ramirez blamed his first positive test on a medication given to him by his doctors. The medication? A women's fertility drug. Experts say the drug is commonly used by athletes to restart their bodies' natural testosterone production as they come off a steroid cycle. Ramirez, suspended a second time, is serving 50 games of a 100-game suspension at the start of the 2012 season.

17. Atlanta Braves' prospect Jordan Schafer was suspended 50 games in 2008 after a Major League Baseball investigation into HGH use implicated him. Schafer accepted his punishment.

But he told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution he "didn't take anything" and that he was guilty of being around the wrong crowd.

"If you hang around dogs long enough, you're going to catch fleas," he said.

18. American track star Justin Gatlin said he didn't know how high levels of testosterone got into his system at a 2006 track meet in Kansas. His coach, Trevor Graham, blamed a vengeful massage therapist for rubbing a cream containing the steroid into Gatlin's legs without his knowledge.

Bud Shaw is a columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer who has also written for the Philadelphia Daily News, San Diego Union-Tribune, Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The National. You can read his Plain Dealer columns at Cleveland.com, and read all his mental_floss articles here.

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Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock
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science
Head Case: What the Only Soft Tissue Dodo Head in Existence Is Teaching Scientists About These Extinct Birds
Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock
Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock

Of all the recently extinct animals, none seems to excite the imagination quite like the dodo—a fact Mark Carnall has experienced firsthand. As one of two Life Collections Managers at the UK's Oxford University Museum of Natural History, he’s responsible for nearly 150,000 specimens, “basically all the dead animals excluding insects and fossils,” he tells Mental Floss via email. And that includes the only known soft tissue dodo head in existence.

“In the two and a bit years that I’ve been here, there’s been a steady flow of queries about the dodo from researchers, artists, the public, and the media,” he says. “This is the third interview about the dodo this week! It’s definitely one of the most popular specimens I look after.”

The dodo, or Raphus cucullatus, lived only on the island of Mauritius (and surrounding islets) in the Indian Ocean. First described by Vice Admiral Wybrand van Warwijck in 1598, it was extinct less than 100 years later (sailors' tales of the bird, coupled with its rapid extinction, made many doubt that the dodo was a real creature). Historians still debate the extent that humans ate them, but the flightless birds were easy prey for the predators, including rats and pigs, that sailors introduced to the isolated island of Mauritius. Because the dodo went extinct in the 1600s (the actual date is still widely debated), museum specimens are very, very rare. In fact, with the exception of subfossils—the dark skeletons on display at many museums—there are only three other known specimens, according to Carnall, “and one of those is missing.” (The fully feathered dodos you might have seen in museums? They're models, not actual zoological specimens.)

A man standing with a Dodo skeleton and a reconstructed model of the extinct bird
A subfossil (bone that has not been fully fossilized) Dodo skeleton and a reconstructed model of the extinct bird in a museum in Wales circa 1938.
Becker, Fox Photos/Getty Images

Since its extinction was confirmed in the 1800s, Raphus cucullatus has been an object of fascination: It’s been painted and drawn, written about and scientifically studied, and unfairly become synonymous with stupidity. Even now, more than 300 years since the last dodo walked the Earth, there’s still so much we don’t know about the bird—and Oxford’s specimen might be our greatest opportunity to unlock the mysteries surrounding how it behaved, how it lived, how it evolved, and how it died.

 
 

To put into context how old the dodo head is, consider this: From the rule of Oliver Cromwell to the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, it has been around—and it’s likely even older than that. Initially an entire bird (how exactly it was preserved is unclear), the specimen belonged to Elias Ashmole, who used his collections to found Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum in 1677. Before that, it belonged to John Tradescant the Elder and his son; a description of the collection from 1656 notes the specimen as “Dodar, from the Island Mauritius; it is not able to flie being so big.”

And that’s where the dodo’s provenance ends—beyond that, no one knows where or when the specimen came from. “Where the Tradescants got the dodo from has been the subject of some speculation,” Carnall says. “A number of live animals were brought back from Mauritius, but it’s not clear if this is one of [those animals].”

Initially, the specimen was just another one of many in the museum’s collections, and in 1755, most of the body was disposed of because of rot. But in the 19th century, when the extinction of the dodo was confirmed, there was suddenly renewed interest in what remained. Carnall writes on the museum’s blog that John Duncan, then the Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum, had a number of casts of the head made, which were sent to scientists and institutions like the British Museum and Royal College of Surgeons. Today, those casts—and casts of those casts—can be found around the world. (Carnall is actively trying to track them all down.)

The Oxford University Dodo head with scoleric bone and the skin on one side removed.
The Oxford University Dodo head with skin and sclerotic ring.
© Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History // Used with permission

In the 1840s, Sir Henry Acland, a doctor and teacher, dissected one side of the head to expose its skeleton, leaving the skin attached on the other side, for a book about the bird by Alexander Gordon Melville and H.E. Strickland called The dodo and its kindred; or, The history, affinities, and osteology of the dodo, solitaire, and other extinct birds of the islands Mauritius, Rodriguez and Bourbon. Published in 1848, “[It] brought together all the known accounts and depictions of the dodo,” Carnall says. The Dodo and its kindred further raised the dodo’s profile, and may have been what spurred schoolteacher George Clark to take a team to Mauritius, where they found the subfossil dodo remains that can be seen in many museums today.

Melville and Strickland described Oxford’s specimen—which they believed to be female—as being “in tolerable preservation ... The eyes still remain dried within the sockets, but the corneous extremity of the beak has perished, so that it scarcely exhibits that strongly hooked termination so conspicuous in all the original portraits. The deep transverse grooves are also visible, though less developed than in the paintings.”

Today, the specimen includes the head as well as the sclerotic ring (a bony feature found in the eyes of birds and lizards), a feather (which is mounted on a microscope slide), tissue samples, the foot skeleton, and scales from the foot. “Considering it’s been on display in collections and museums, pest eaten, dissected, sampled and handled by scientists for over 350 years,” Carnall says, “it’s in surprisingly good condition.”

 
 

There’s still much we don’t know about the dodo, and therefore a lot to learn. As the only soft tissue of a dodo known to exist, the head has been studied for centuries, and not always in ways that we would approve of today. “There was quite some consideration about dissecting the skin off of the head by Sir Henry Acland,” Carnall says. “Sadly there have also been some questionable permissions given, such as when [Melville] soaked the head in water to manipulate the skin and feel the bony structure. Excessive handling over the years has no doubt added to the wear of the specimen.”

Today, scientists who want to examine the head have to follow a standard protocol. “The first step is to get in touch with the museum with details about access requirements ... We deal with enquiries about our collections every single day,” Carnall says. “Depending on the study required, we try to mitigate damage and risk to specimens. For destructive sampling—where a tissue sample or bone sample is needed to be removed from the specimen and then destroyed for analysis—we weigh up the potential importance of the research and how it will be shared with the wider community.”

In other words: Do the potential scientific gains outweigh the risk to the specimen? “This,” Carnall says, “can be a tough decision to make.”

The head, which has been examined by evolutionary biologist Beth Shapiro and extinction expert Samuel Turvey as well as dodo experts Julian Hume and Jolyon Parish, has been key in many recent discoveries about the bird. “[It] has been used to understand what the dodo would have looked like, what it may have eaten, where it fits in with the bird evolutionary tree, island biogeography and of course, extinction,” Carnall says. In 2011, scientists took measurements from dodo remains—including the Oxford specimen—and revised the size of the bird from the iconic 50 pounder seen in paintings to an animal “similar to that of a large wild turkey.” DNA taken from specimen’s leg bone has shed light on how the dodo came to Mauritius and how it was related to other dodo-like birds on neighboring islands [PDF]. That DNA also revealed that the dodo’s closest living relative is the Nicobar pigeon [PDF].

A nicobar pigeon perched on a bowl of food.
A nicobar pigeon.
iStock

Even with those questions answered, there are a million more that scientists would like to answer about the dodo. “Were there other species—plants, parasites—that depended on the dodo?” Carnall asks. “What was the soft tissue like? ... How and when did the dodo and the related and also extinct Rodrigues solitaire colonize the Mascarene Islands? What were their brains like?”

 
 

Though it’s a rare specimen, and priceless by scientific standards, the dodo head is, in many ways, just like all the rest of the specimens in the museum’s collections. It’s stored in a standard archival quality box with acid-free tissue paper that’s changed regularly. (The box is getting upgraded to something that Carnall says is “slightly schmancier” because “it gets quite a bit of use, more so than the rest of the collection.”) “As for the specific storage, we store it in vault 249 and obviously turn the lasers off during the day,” Carnall jokes. “The passcode for the vault safe is 1234ABCD …”

According to Carnall, even though there are many scientific and cultural reasons why the dodo head is considered important, to him, it isn’t necessarily more important than any of the other 149,999 specimens he’s responsible for.

“Full disclosure: All museum specimens are equally important to collections managers,” he says. “It is a huge honor and a privilege to be responsible for this one particular specimen, but each and every specimen in the collection also has the power to contribute towards our knowledge of the natural world ... This week I was teaching about a species of Greek woodlouse and the molluscs of Oxfordshire. We know next to nothing about these animals—where they live, what they eat, the threats to them, and the predators that rely on them. The same is true of most living species, sadly. But on the upside, there’s so much work to be done!”

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