Columns

The innocent ones are forever guilty

BY TREVOR HALL

Tuesday, March 18, 2014    

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It is a fundamental human right that a person is presumed innocent until found guilty in a court of law. This is true, except for athletes. Athletes who fail a drug test are automatically labelled as guilty of doping, even before they can defend themselves. The stigma of guilt lasts forever, even if an athlete is later exonerated. The innocent athlete who returns an adverse analytical finding, the euphemism for failing a drug test, can never get back his/her good name. The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and national anti-doping organisations owe it to the sport, the athletes, coaches, parents, fans, sponsors, and the athletes' nations to stop this injustice.

Track and field has a chequered history when it comes to athletes using performance-enhancing drugs. Many elite athletes have fooled the world, enjoying fame and making millions of dollars. Drug use in athletics began back in the 1950s, at the dawn of the Cold War, when Communist athletes, mainly in the throwing events, used steroids to become stronger and throw farther. Other athletes discovered that steroids enhanced the performance of runners and jumpers. The superpowers ran the world and monopolised global sports.

Many believed that communist athletes were using performance-enhancing drugs, while the Western superpowers looked the other way when their athletes took drugs. Some athletes from smaller nations competed with the superpowers by also taking drugs. However, even in the days of rampant drug use and no drug-testing, there were still a few clean athletes. They were often the skinny ones who made the finals, but finished at the back of the pack. The drug-free women athletes looked feminine and watched muscle-bound bearded females with deep voices bask in the glory of their Olympic gold medals and world records. Most of the current women world records were set during the Cold War. Today's women sprinters only dream of breaking the world records of 10.49 in the 100m, 21.34 in the 200m, 47.60 in the 400m, and 3.15.17 in the 4x400m relay.

At the beginning of the twentieth-first century, drug cheaters made a fool out of the newly created WADA, the anti-drug agency. WADA conducted hundreds of drug tests on athletes who passed, while taking undetected drugs. Things changed in 2003-2004, when a dispute between the American-based Jamaican coach Trevor Graham and his star American sprinters Marion Jones and Tim Montgomery led the coach to send a vial with an undetectable designer steroid to WADA.

Professor Dom Catlin of UCLA, who worked with WADA, received the vial sent by Graham and secretly developed a test to identify the previously undetectable steroid. All of a sudden the 100mr world record holder, Tim Montgomery, and world's fastest woman, Marion Jones failed the new drug test, along with dozens of the world's best sprinters. Some of them received lifetime banishments from track and field, and a younger generation of drug-free sprinters took their place. Only then did Jamaican begin to dominate global sprinting.

While a few Jamaicans have won Olympic gold medals since 1948, Jamaicans never dominated global sprinting until the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The present Jamaican success may be attributed to a series of events in the 1990s, including the end of the Cold War, the advent of professional athletics, Jamaican sprinters staying home instead of accepting athletic scholarships to American universities, the beginning of random drug-testing by the WADA, and the election of Lamine Diack as president of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). Diack and the IAAF established high performance centres around the world, placing the one for sprinting in Kingston, Jamaica. These developments led Jamaican entrepreneurs to start track clubs and encouraged high school superstars to train in Jamaica and become professional athletes instead of running for free at American universities.

Today the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction and innocent athletes are being persecuted by an unregulated out-of-control international press, cheered on by one or two WADA officials. A small number of rabid Internet tabloid journalists have relentlessly attacked Jamaican sprinters and distance runners in Kenya. These detractors conclude that Jamaicans dominate the sprints and Kenyans rule distance, therefore, they must be using performance-enhancing drugs. The tabloids are joined by a few former athletes who took drugs and could not run as fast as Jamaican sprinters or Kenyan distance runners; hence they conclude that today's athletes must be on drugs.

A major problem is that the professional journalists classify anyone who has failed a drug test as guilty of a doping violation. On November 12, 2013, the well-respected BBC Radio claimed that there has been a rash of positive tests of doping in Jamaica. The BBC reporter never said that the Jamaican sprinters failed drug tests because of the presence of diuretics and stimulants, which are not performance-enhancing drugs. Nor did they inform the public that WADA has thousands of drugs and substances on its banned list. Many ordinary people who take over-the-counter cold medications would fail the WADA drug test. The sensational headlines sell newspapers and increase advertising revenues on websites, but it is bad journalism.

The detractors ignore the fact that Jamaican sprinters are among the most drug-tested athletes in the world. They never mention that the recent failures of drug tests by Jamaican sprinters constitute only minor infractions under the WADA code. In November 2013, IAAF President Lamine Diack accused WADA officials of leading a ridiculous campaign against Jamaica and Kenya and their athletes. This was after WADA threatened to ban Jamaicans from competing in future Olympics. Diack reminded the world that WADA has no such power. Recently, the IAAF deputy-secretary, Nick Davis, said the Jamaica Anti-Doping Commission should be careful not to give the impression that the island's athletes are not being tested, an approach he believes will unfairly damage the country's reputation and that of the sport in general. He added that last year Usain Bolt was tested 12 times and Yohan Blake 14 times.

One Jamaican sprinter who recently failed a drug test took diuretics that she declared on her Therapeutic Use Exemption (TEU) medical form, and the recently completed disciplinary hearing found it was a minor violation, as the IAAF had said all along. The athlete received a verbal reprimand from her nation, then the IAAF changed that to a two-year suspension. However, the Court of Arbitration in Sports (CAS) overturned that decision and cleared the athlete. Yet, the athlete's reputation has been damaged beyond repair.

All the Jamaican sprinters who failed drug tests were running much slower than their personal records. That is why I conclude that they are not taking performance-enhancing drugs. Most telling, the athletes tested positive in Jamaica, and the tests were conducted by the Jamaica Anti-Doping Commission (JADCO) which is criticised for not testing Jamaican athletes. Stimulants in supplements and diuretics do not make sprinters run faster. It is true that diuretics can mask performance-enhancing drugs, but the athlete who took the diuretics was running much slower than her personal best. If Jamaican sprinters were taking performance-enhancing drugs they would be running much faster.

Much of the responsibility for the current state of affairs falls squarely on a few JADCO administrators who gave interviews to the international press. The board of directors of JADCO has just resigned. One administrator complained that athletes were being tested for the EPO growth hormone during the out-of-competition period. Just because a national anti-doping commission is not conducting more tests does not mean that athletes are taking performance-enhancing drugs. Jamaica is a poor country, and no government agency has all the money it wants. Statements from the very people charged with running drug-testing in Jamaica gave ammunition to a few unprofessional English tabloids, one or two WADA officials, and Internet websites to attack Jamaican sprinters and condemn the entire country. I condemn any athlete who takes performance-enhancing drugs, but rebuke those who persecute innocent young men and women who work so hard to be the fastest sprinters and best distance runners on earth.

Trevor Hall, PhD, is an associate professor of history and a consultant in athletics, portuguese culture, and political science. He was a Penn Relays champion and an All-American Triple Jumper. He coached the 1988 800m Olympic Paul Ereng, and was a volunteer coach at Manchester High School. Comments: lingua111@hotmail.com

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