Penns organisers clear the air
A fallout of possibly disastrous proportions for Jamaica's track and field, especially high school athletes, may have been narrowly averted following a decision to restore Calabar High star Michael O'Hara's amateur status, which allows him to participate in this year's Penn Relays here, according to the meet organisers.
O'Hara was originally barred from competing for Calabar at the 121st staging of the annual relay carnival after it was revealed he had signed an endorsement contract with telecommunications company Digicel. That changed his status from amateur to professional. Calabar is scheduled to run against other high schools at "Penns", mostly those from the United States. American high school athletes are considered amateurs and not allowed to compete against professionals. Therefore, O'Hara was originally ruled ineligible to run for Calabar.
According to David S. Johnson, carnival director, on Tuesday, April 21, lawyers representing Digicel and O'Hara filed an injunction in the Court of Common Pleas in Philadelphia, which sought to reinstate the athlete as a competitor for Calabar. It was contested by the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (PIAA), the governing body for high school athletics in this US state. On Wednesday, April 22, the judge, according to Johnson, "mandated" representatives of Digicel, O'Hara, Penn Relays and the PIAA to hold a hearing to address the issue.
The PIAA hearing, said Johnson, was held here Wednesday evening, where representatives of Digicel and O'Hara agreed to "nullify" the endorsement deal. The PIAA and Penn Relays then agreed to restore the athlete's amateur status. That decision was agreed to by the US National Federation of High Schools (NFHS), making O'Hara eligible to compete for Calabar here. Otherwise, Johnson explained, O'Hara would only have been allowed to compete in development or invitational events at Penns.
"The NFHS had to approve," said Johnson. "Penns would not have allowed O'Hara to run for Calabar if the deal was not ratified."
Both O'Hara and Digicel, Johnson explained, said the athlete had "not received any benefits" from the endorsement deal. Returning benefits was also part of the agreement between the parties to reinstate O'Hara's amateur status.
"So there was nothing to stop his return," Johnson said, "The PIAA determined he was free to compete as an amateur."
However, according to Johnson, if no agreement had been reached at the hearing and the injunction stayed in effect, allowing O'Hara to compete for Calabar at Penns, it could have had far-reaching and damaging impact for high school athletics as the amateur status of those who competed with and against him could possibly have been compromised as well.
"Jamaican high schools, as well as other high school athletes, could have been in jeopardy if O'Hara had competed with them without PIAA approval," Johnson said.
If that worst-case scenario had materialised, Jamaican high school athletes would have possibly been in danger of also losing their amateur status as well, risking, among other opportunities, scholarship offers from US universities and future participation at Penns.