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Is a public warning punishment enough?

Published:Friday | October 4, 2013 | 12:00 AM
Veronica Campbell-Brown

Orville Higgins

As I wrote in my last column, the debate about the Veronica Campbell-Brown drug case would not go away when the verdict was delivered. Indeed, I argued last Friday that whatever the decision of the panel, another fresh round of discussions would kick into high gear.

Well, the debate has already started. Following news Wednesday evening that a public warning had been recommended by the panel, social media have been crazy, with people all over the world commenting on the verdict.

For those who are blind devotees of Veronica, they see the result as some kind of vindication for her. Short of the charges being completely dropped, a public warning is the second best thing they could have hoped for.

For others, there are some legitimate questions, and those questions are being asked by track and field fans worldwide. What exactly was her defence? What reason did she give for having the substance in her system, whatever the substance is?

The general consensus is that Veronica didn't intend to cheat and, therefore, the panel went easy on her. That she didn't intend to cheat seems reasonable, especially as it is understood that she did declare the drug on the form after. But if that is so, why did Shelly-Ann Fraser serve a six-month ban when it was also widely accepted that she, too, didn't intend to cheat at all, and that the drug in her case, oxycodone, was neither a performance enhancer nor a possible masking agent? Why is there such a disparity between the two sanctions? How is the outside world, which is already sceptical of our attitude to drug testing, to view this case?

Also coming under scrutiny is the very term 'public warning' itself. What exactly is that? Doesn't a public warning mean that the panel thought she was still guilty of having a banned substance in her system without an airtight explanation? Is a public warning a reprieve? Or is it that the panel is accepting that its members felt that the explanations, whatever they were, didn't totally absolve her of all blame?

universal concerns

But I go even further (and let me hasten to say I'm not blaming the panel for recommending that at all). As long as the IAAF has a public warning that as an option for a drug hearing panel, then that option will sometimes be taken. In fact, my concerns now are more universal than the Veronica case.

My question is, does a public warning really make sense? A public warning is not 'punishment'. It's essentially saying, we won't punish you now; be careful, or else. But if the panel believes you are guilty, a public warning essentially gets you off scot-free.

The question must then arise as to why somebody who is guilty should not serve any time at all. Clearly that couldn't be considered fair, when others who are deemed guilty are banned for some time.

On the other hand, if a panel feels that a charge doesn't warrant an athlete serving any time, because of the nature of the drug, or the defence that was put up, why deem the athlete guilty? Public warnings seem to be a case of a panel sitting on the fence, accepting that you are not blameless, but not wanting to punish you. I have a fundamental issue with that.

Do you think the athlete is guilty? That athlete should serve time. Do you think the athlete is not guilty for whatever reason? Then why is the athlete being warned? If the defence holds and the panel buys the story, the athlete should be sent home with the case dismissed.

Think about this: The IAAF wants first offenders to get maximum two years now (and that will change shortly), and a second offender faces a possible life ban. What if VCB breaches again? What will her penalty be? Will that breach be counted as a first or second offence? In other words, will she now face two years or life if another case of adverse analytical findings be brought against her?

As I predicted, the verdict on the VCB case will not be the end. It'll be more like the beginning.

Orville Higgins is a sportscaster and talk-show host on KLAS FM. Email feedback to