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Jamaica's athletes reputation has hit rock bottom

Published:Sunday | August 4, 2013 | 12:00 AM

Michael A. Grant, Guest Columnist

WITH THE recent news that one of the senior Reggae Boyz has returned an adverse analytical finding, Jamaica's reputation for noble, hard-working athletes, fuelled only by reggae rhythm and yellow yam, has hit rock bottom. We now stand squarely in the age of the Jamaican drug scandal, waiting for each new revelation to tarnish and redefine the new golden age of the island's athletics.

At every turn, the drug-detection czars congratulate themselves about how fine their new techniques and tools are, and ask onlookers to behold the big fish they're now reeling in. Journalists, including Jamaican ones, seem thrilled to follow along uncritically, as if they had always secretly suspected that little Jamaica could never legally have become so dominant in athletics. The sports fan, who has been lied to so often in so many other areas of life, has no choice but to join in the condemnation, saddened and angry that one more thing can't be trusted. "If you choose to cheat," says Sebastian Coe, "the technology is there to make sure that our sport is clean and is competed all with integrity." There is something missing from this picture, especially if Coe believes that the recent high-profile cases 'chose to cheat'.


We didn't get here by accident. Much of the current situation owes its origin to the ancient ideals of athletics, which sought to keep money and unfair physical advantages out of the sport, while trusting each nation to police its own athletes. Then, amateurs became pros; the early mushroom and strychnine abusers evolved into users of all kinds of chemical boosters, and worst of all, East Germany refused to allow scrutiny of its performance-enhancing drug (PED) activities in the 1960s. Before long, the detection of drug cheats in sport had become a joke, giving rise to shady Eastern Europeans programmes of the 1970s. The United States authorities, desperate to keep up in the athletic arms race, have allegedly overlooked several infractions by marquee athletes since that time.

Enter World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) in 1999 at the dawn of the new millennium, determined to regain lost prestige and muscle. Money and technology poured into the testing body from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and world governments. Where the old detection was being done in thousandths, substances could routinely be divined in millionths.

Local authorities, anxious to overcompensate in societies where fairness is rare, now can't wait to throw the book at 'infractions' in which athletes have used no more than what they thought was a harmless 'sex pill', cough medicine, joint cream, muscle balm, toothache remedy or asthma medication. We should never forget that athletes have regular maladies just like we do, and aren't actually trying to improve athletic performance with everything they ingest. Some commentators have even gone so far as to suggest that professionals like Veronica Campbell-Brown, Asafa Powell and Sherone Simpson, who are all at or near 30, will do anything to retain or regain top spots in the sport. Their careers will all soon be over, the theory goes, so they must be risking it all and operating at the brink of detection.


After they conquered the 'cream' (mostly testosterone) and 'the clear' (tetrahydrogestrinone), the substances that will forever define the most notorious era in track and field, I expected that WADA would use all that technology and organizational capability to educate and help athletes stay clean and engaged in the sport - not throw them out of it.

Dr Louise Burke, from the Department of Sports Nutrition at the Australian Institute of Sport, has said emphatically that because of the poor standards governing nutritional supplements, "it is impossible to identify supplements and sports foods that are risk-free". She goes on to say that since athletes are responsible for their intake, then major changes in education of athletes and everyone who handles them is required. Why, then, is WADA so pleased with itself, like some kind of croupier at a rigged casino game, before such change has been achieved? Are we supposed to become so ashamed for our athletes that 'vitamin gotcha' is the only sport left to cheer?

Essentially, the whole business seems to be led by technology, not justice. In law, you have to connect alleged actions logically in order to get at the truth. But in doping detection, there's a huge difference between sports justice and regular justice, which recognises only one crime, accepts very few extenuating circumstances, yet doles out a variety of punishments, many career-ending. In other words, since the suspect usually stops competing or is suspended - effectively losing most of a season's revenues and rankings regardless of the outcome - everyone with a positive finding is effectively punished. Most world courts would call this arbitrary and capricious, kind of like hanging someone for theft of something that only cost a penny, then using the same rope to dispatch a mass murderer. But don't laugh yet; Charles Dickens described a British legal system in the 1800s that saw no problem in executing an adolescent for swiping a gentleman's handkerchief. It took a more evolved review and revision of objective justice in the law to change those standards.


This evolution needs to happen now before it's too late (for those unclear about when that is, it's just after Usain Bolt uses the wrong eye drops). Every sports fan, including this writer, has had his or her own moment of thinking, "can that athlete be legally this fast or strong?" but it is time to insist that the system of finding and removing dopers in sport be fair and seem to be fair - you know, the way regular justice strives to be. A sport that represents perhaps the highest standard of human physical achievement cannot be policed exclusively by supercomputers, MDs and PhDs who don't care if athletes are clueless about what they're taking; everyone involved with athletes must help them stay clean. Additionally, the dope-catchers must expand their current database of legal substances or allow an international athletes' union to do so, and get every new entry officially blessed before anyone uses them.


From all indications, the three Jamaican Olympians appear to be the most humble, traditionally raised, honourable people who have ever worn the national colours. Is it not possible that athletes at that 'advanced age' are actually so successful that they want to maintain peak health - and can afford to do it by spending and searching more aggressively?

Marion Jones never failed a drug test, and so she blithely denied that she got her regular 'fix' from BALCO via commercial courier, complete with dosage calendar and instructions. Ben Johnson, with jaundiced eyes and raging acne, admitted to taking injections of stanozolol as he radically transformed his physique and 100-metre performances. That's the kind of thing we should call doping, when you gamble big and actively seek a chemical edge. You still have to work hard, of course, but your capacity to build muscle, train more vigorously and recover more quickly is the payoff. The great sporting bodies should not let nutritional supplements trip up their best athletes, sidelining them, stigmatising them and shaming them without at least some determination of their intent. On this score, Lord Coe, head of the Organising Committee for the London 2012 Olympics, has it wrong. Saying that athletes are responsible for their intake might sound great, but it places the burden of proof on the accused, which really should have gone away entirely after the Middle Ages. The system, even though it has well-known investigative techniques available, chooses lazy medieval reasoning instead of modern law.

The net effect of unjust justice is that the names of Blake, Fraser-Pryce and others are being listed in the same breath with those of disgraced athletes like Marion Jones and Ben Johnson because they all have had a bad test in common, but without the context. The problem is that the writers rattling off the names do not tend to mention exoneration or accidental ingestion. An adverse finding leaves you guilty forever, no matter the circumstances. It isn't fair. At least the poor little Dickensian pickpockets knew they were doing something wrong.

Michael A. Grant is author of several books, including (with Hubert Lawrence and Bryan Cummings) 'The Power & The Glory: Jamaica in World Athletics, from WWII to the Diamond League Era'. Send comments to