Columns

Some of the guilty ones are forever innocent

BY TREVOR HALL

Wednesday, June 25, 2014    

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THE reason many people love track and field is that the 100 metres and the marathon are the same distance for everyone. However, off the track, politics, power, and nationality influence the penalty athletes receive for failing drug tests.

The second-fastest sprinter in history failed three drug tests for using performance-enhancing substances, and he got only a one-year retroactive ban, which permitted him to compete the next month. Yet, two sprinters in the small Caribbean island of "wood and water" got a one-and-a-half year suspension, or two seasons, for taking tainted supplements that did not enhance athletic performance. Justice appears to have taken a holiday; however, it is not that simple, and it never is.

How did we get to this point where a sprinter who failed multiple drug tests for a performance-enhancing drug receives less punishment than two sprinters who took tainted supplements, which were not performance-enhancing drugs? When kings and the paupers line up on the starting line of a sanctioned track meet, the gold medal goes to the fastest runner. However, in life, the king always wins.

In this case, the athlete from the superpower escaped with a slap on the wrist from his governing body, the US Anti-Doping Agency, while the sprinters from Jamaica suffered the draconian penalty levied by their own Jamaican Anti-Doping Commission (JADCO).

The Americans have a long history of accepting the explanation given by their best sprinters who have failed drug tests. American citizens have legal rights that permit them to protect themselves, even when they are guilty. For example, the American citizen is presumed innocent until proven guilty in court. Therefore, an American does not have to prove innocence; the prosecutor must prove guilt.

In the American system an accused person should keep quiet, because "anything he or she says could be used against them in court". The American citizen is protected by the Fifth Amendment where the person can refuse to answer questions on the ground of incriminating oneself. A person with money could tie up a case in court for years.

Tyson Gay's legal team, and the US Anti-Doping Agency used their constitutional rights, politics, power, smarts, the media, and the great influence of a superpower to assist. They all wanted him back on the track, the very next month. How did the American do it? Although Gay failed his first drug test on May 16, 2013, word did not come out about this until July 14, 2013. That day is important because it was the same Sunday word broke that Asafa Powell and Sherone Simpson had failed a drug test.

Linking all three sprinters together dampened the headlines about Mr Gay -- a brilliant decision, especially when the Italian police were brought into the case of Mr Powell and Ms Simpson. The spotlight shifted to the Caribbean sprint power, and away from North America.

Most important, Mr Gay, his legal team, and his governing bodies worked together and kept quiet while they used every word in the WADA code to minimise the penalty of their sprinter. They used the WADA code about "substantial assistance" to enter into a plea bargain.

Everyone kept quiet about the investigation, disciplinary hearings, and penalty phase. In the end, they gave Mr Gay a retroactive one-year penalty and welcomed him back on the track the following month. From the beginning, Mr Gay made no excuses, but took blame for trusting the wrong people.

After saying nothing for months, supporters of American sprinters began to wonder how a man could fail three drug tests and still be innocent of using performance-enhancing drugs. In September 2013, the Associated Press was told by a person familiar with the case that multiple (failed) positives over a short period of time were a sign of an athlete who wasn't trying to hide anything, but simply didn't know he was taking a banned substance. That was a harbinger of things to come -- the lawyers were earning their money.

There was no talk of the athlete being responsible for whatever is in his system. There was no mention that the athlete used steroids, a performance-enhancing drug, and was running super-fast times, just after having had surgery. The team of Mr Gay studied the WADA Code and used the clause that allowed national anti-doping bodies to give reduced sentences to athletes who co-operate with the investigation. Since Mr Gay is assisting the authorities in their investigation, he received the short suspension.

Most brilliantly, the anti-doping American bureaucrats cautioned Mr Gay not to speak about his case because the investigation is ongoing. The American press is co-operating, and the British tabloids leave America alone. Some have convinced themselves that, just like communist athletes in the Cold War, the Jamaicans must be doing something "not so legal" to run so fast. Plus, they conclude, an American should be the world's fastest sprinter -- end of story.

By contrast, the Jamaicans have shown how not to do it. First, the head of the Jamaican Anti-Doping Commission gave an interview to an international news agency, saying athletes were not being tested, and then she resigned. Then another official said the failed drug tests of a few sprinters "was just the tip of the iceberg", and he, too, resigned. Then two of the three Jamaican officials who issued a one-and-a-half-year penalty to Mr Powell and Ms Simpson were charged with major felonies.

All athletes should be treated equally on the track, and when it comes to drug-testing and penalties for failing drug tests. Until there is a new system, do not blame the Americans for protecting their athletes. The Jamaican anti-doping bureaucrats dropped the baton after running out of their lane.

Trevor Hall is an associate professor of history with a PhD from Johns Hopkins University. He was a Penn Relay champion and an All-American triple jumper. Hall coached the 1988 Olympic champion in 800-metres, Paul Ereng, and was a volunteer coach at Manchester High School. He is a consultant in athletics, Portuguese culture, and political science, and may be reached at: lingua111@hotmail.com

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