Recent news that two Jamaicans tested positive for substances on the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) banned list was a blow to the credibility of our country's track and field programme. The news certainly provided fuel for sceptics like retired Olympian, Carl Lewis, and former anti-doping chief, Dick Pound. My contention is with those nationals who contribute to the negative media perspective on our local drug-testing programme.
I don't for a second feel that the recent disclosures naming two athletes is the worse thing that could have happened to our programme, although you may be led to think so, given some of the comments published which seem to chide the commission for falling down on its drug-testing programme. I would think that JADCO ought to receive some credit for being the ones that have consistently smoked out the offenders. One Gleaner columnist went as far as suggesting that WADA may be unhappy with the performance of the local programme, and that we admitted to doing minimal drug tests in the months leading up to the national trials. I did some fact-checking of this information, which I considered incredible, and sure enough learned that the claim that JADCO admitted to such a breakdown was grossly exaggerated. While there was a gap in the out-of-competition-testing programme for about two months - March through April - unfortunate as this was, that was the limit of the delay, not a break leading into the national trials as suggested by some. I also suspect that a subsequent visit by a WADA team, as reported, was for fence-mending purposes, all things considered.
I was out of the country when the present JADCO chairman, Dr Winston Davidson, and the former executive director, Dr Patrice Freeman, engaged in what I heard was a "spirited" media discussion about some breakdown at the commission arising from the fact that approximately 500 drug-testing kits, costing almost $24 million, were expired when the new board started operations.
That expenditure bored a hole in the budget of the commission, whose new administration had to make representation for increased funding in an already strapped economic climate. To their credit they achieved this in advance of the competition months, the period when drug cheating is usually considered to be at its highest. In fact, JADCO asserts that its testing programme is fully back on track. The programme is said to compare favourably with other countries, although there is still much work to be done generally.
What I find incredible is that nobody seems to be seeking an explanation for the expired kits. It appears that some find it far easier to attack the commission, which has not so far given any real indication of falling down on the job.
I gather that the defence advanced by Dr Freeman included an explanation that the expiry date on the kits did not render them invalid, and that they still could have been used at the time. Also that such an assurance had been given by WADA. I advanced that possibility with both Dr Davidson and the new executive director, Ann Shirley, both of whom affirmed that they were not in a position to take such a risk when so much was at stake. In fact, Dr Davidson went further to state that WADA itself was in no position to provide any such assurance. Certainly in the case of a legally contested result, such an acknowledgement would provide a strong case in the athlete's defence. I would understand if, faced with that explanation, WADA chose to remain silent.
I think that to JADCO's credit, the programme has been doing reasonably well since its inception as reflected in its aggressive testing agenda. Based on the evidence, their public education programme seems to be having a favourable effect in raising the awareness of our athletes, certainly at the local level.
All the Jamaicans implicated in drug-testing operations so far have been caught by the local testing programme. In the four years of JADCO's operation, there have been about eight athletes in all who have had a positive test returned.
While it is true that this includes an equal number of locally based athletes, before August no locally based athlete could have been convincingly labelled a drug cheat although you wouldn't believe this, reading some of the stories published.
The three who were slapped with a minor three-month suspension in 2011 suffered the result of a decision that many, including myself, considered harsh at best, as the substance identified in their urine samples was not on the WADA banned list until after that case was concluded.
Then we all are familiar with the case against Shelly-Ann-Fraser Pryce who was slapped with a six-month suspension for taking oxycodone, a drug that is not considered to be performance enhancing and merely taken to relieve a persistent toothache.
Available information suggests that athletes who are based overseas have committed the far more serious drug-use infractions. This indicates some weakness in JADCO's public education programme that needs urgent attention.
WADA itself has issued an advisory recommending a long-term solution to preventing doping through effective values-based education programmes that can foster anti-doping behaviours and create a strong anti-doping culture. For Jamaica this must include special focus on our overseas as well as locally based athletes since this is where the problem seems to be more in evidence.
In the present case against Ricardo Cunningham, the MVP-trained 800-metre champion, a guilty verdict would most likely result in a slap on the wrist as this is not only a first offence, but the drug in question, pseudoephedrine (PSE), is found in most cold medicines and was previously removed then re-introduced on the WADA list in 2010.
Unfortunately for him, the fact that the country's track and field programme is now under the global microscope of investigation, he may not gain the benefit of the disciplinary hearing that has been afforded to others like Carl Lewis who received a "let-off" in similar circumstances prior to the Seoul Olympics.
Given the wide availability of PSE-containing medicines, on its re-introduction, WADA "recommended that it be supported by an active information/education campaign by all stakeholders". It appears that neither Cunningham nor his managers got this message.
As I understand it, all he had to do was to seek the permission of a JADCO-listed physician. The other Jamaican to face the country's disciplinary body is 400-metre runner Dominique Blake, a woman whose website speaks eloquently about her background and potential.
She is in a far less enviable situation as this is the second time she is facing the possibility of a conviction as she is reported to have tested positive for the stimulant methylhexaneamine, the same performance-enhancing substance on the WADA list for which she received a nine-month suspension in 2006. She will need a lot of luck and plenty of prayers.