Complicated drug culture puts athletes on edge
Gordon Williams, Sunday Gleaner Writer
Point them to the track or field and expect Jamaican athletes to excel by applying a complex formula of physical talent, guts and smarts. Leave them to figure out what they're barred from ingesting, and many false start.
But it may not be for lack of trying.
The recent rash of positive tests for banned substances impacting Jamaica's track and field is proving that heightened awareness by athletes does not guarantee clean results from the lab. Neither do extensive - even excessive - efforts to monitor what goes into their bodies.
While most athletes, cheaters among them, usually blame innocent slip-ups, breaches of trust or sabotage when confronted by damning test results, it's becoming increasingly clear that not many can stay lockstep with the diligence demanded by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), which monitors sports for violations. WADA's lists of banned substances are looming squarely into the spotlight, alongside the growing band of elite athletes - rightfully or not - who are doomed to scrutiny, scorn and financial losses.
DIFFICULT TO COMPLY
While the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) holds athletes solely responsible for what they ingest, some experts believe the lists of banned substances are getting harder to decipher than the DNA of a Martian.
"Athletes without scientific support can feel like they are in a loaded minefield where even the best due diligence can come up short," Dr Peter Ruddock, a medicinal chemist and expert witness for several elite Jamaican athletes who've tested positive for banned substances, wrote in a recent article for The Gleaner.
Checks with several camps, including athletes, agents, managers and coaches, revealed that far more care is being taken to monitor what goes into an athlete's body than ever before, compared to the past when dope testing was less prevalent and sophisticated.
That, some argue, strains the credibility of athletes claiming they inadvertently ingested banned substances. The elite ones, especially, expect drug tests - in and out of competition. They should know what substances will trigger adverse analytical findings.
But do they? Despite deafening calls for harsher punishment for doping offenders - former greats Sergei Bubka and Sebastian Coe among those demanding longer bans - not many current athletes publicly cheer when even their most hated rivals are found guilty of using banned substances, often stimulants found in supplements. They know cases may not be what they appear on the surface.
"It's not everything in a bottle is listed on a bottle," explained Marlon Malcolm, a Jamaican coach based in the United States. "An athlete doesn't really know what they are taking. Anything can happen."
Malcolm coaches sprinter Sheri-Ann Brooks, who tested positive for a banned stimulant at the 2009 Jamaica trials. She made the team to the IAAF World Championships in Athletics (WCA), but was not allowed to compete, even after she was cleared. Although Malcolm accepted that the supplement Brooks took at the time contained what WADA linked to a banned stimulant, he argued that the substance was not listed on the supplement's container or by WADA.
"We really went through all the supplements thoroughly," Malcolm said. "The ingredients listed on the supplement were OK."
The Jamaica Anti-Doping Commission (JADCO) conducted 70 drugs tests at this year's national trials alone. Yet some athletes, even those competing at the highest level for years, may not know exactly what the testers are looking for. WADA, apparently, has two lists of banned substances: the Prohibited List International Standard and another Summary of Major Modifications and Explanatory Notes. Add substances listed as banned to the myriad of those "related" to them, and it can get confusing. Not all athletes can pay to get substances analysed.
Yet, not everyone is willing to dump blame on all athletes, even with cheaters lurking among them.
"I think they are more vigilant now," said long-time Jamaican track and field observer Teddy Bailey. "But the athletes are not scientists ... . It's hard to keep track of what's banned or what's not banned ... . I really empathise with the athletes."
Help is one solution.
"Our athletes need scientific support," wrote Ruddock, "replete with the appropriate education and training to navigate this obstacle course."
Some negotiate the course on their own. Stunning recent revelations that Jamaican stars like Veronica Campbell-Brown, Asafa Powell, and Sherone Simpson returned positive tests for banned substances have pulled back the curtain on steps taken by athletes to increase their awareness about doping. Many, including cheaters, do their own research and complement findings with checks done by knowledgeable supporters. But that hasn't stopped positive drugs tests, which have also claimed big names outside Jamaica, including American star Tyson Gay. Swamped at times by ignorance, some athletes fall back on proven routines.
"For me, there is nothing added," explained Lennox Graham, a former national track representative who coaches at Johnson C. Smith University in the United States, and will assist Jamaica at the IAAF WCA August 10-18 in Russia.
"Same thing I have been telling my athletes then, I am telling them now."
That includes regular "warnings" about what to ingest and who to trust.
"Don't get fancy or get high tech," Graham tells his camp, which includes sisters Shermaine and Danielle Williams, plus Leford Green, who will represent Jamaica at the WCA. " ... You have to keep it simple ... . The coach and the athletes have to communicate."
Stephen Francis, who coaches Powell and Simpson, hinted that a possible breakdown in communication may have led to the sprinters testing positive for the banned stimulant oxilofrine. Francis told a local radio station that the two made decisions about supplements use without consulting him. He said he researches products for athletes to determine if they are free from banned substances. Campbell-Brown, Powell, Simpson, and other Jamaicans have declared they never deliberately took any banned substance. Their fate will be decided by JADCO.
Others, spooked by mistrust or burned by previous experiences, have hiked caution levels. Brooks, who is on Jamaica's 2013 WCA team, "cut off all supplements" since her positive test in 2009, said Malcolm. "Her diet has changed extremely."
She now relies on coconut water, directly from the fruit, as her recovery drink after it was determined the banned stimulant originated from her supplement.
Dr Herb Elliott, chairman of JADCO, has warned athletes to avoid supplements. Usain Bolt, Jamaica's super sprinter, confirmed he relies on a support team for guidance, especially with the myriad interpretations surrounding WADA's lists. Bolt insisted he takes vitamins, not supplements, but he also admitted he personally tracks the rules.
"You have to be very careful as an athlete because there are a lot of things on the banned list," he told a press conference recently. "You have to keep up to date all the time."
Relying on others is not fail-safe either.
"I basically put my trust in someone and I was let down," Gay told the Associated Press after his adverse analytical findings were discovered.
Caution has led athletes to quirky habits. One coach videotapes the preparation of his athletes' meals, to keep as evidence.
"Just to make sure," he said. "Just in case."
Athletes weren't always that skeptical. Point them to the track or field and they're OK. Everything else is becoming too complicated.