Monday, July 27, 2009

Doping Cloud Shows Weakness in the System

As Usain Bolt and Tyson Gay traded eye dropping races this weekend in London in preparation for their impending showdown in Berlin, the sport once again finds itself once again dealing with the news of multiple doping offenses coming out of the sprint community.

This time, the news comes not out of the United States - which has gotten more than one black eye this decade via doping scandals - but out of Jamaica, the home of multiple WR breaker Asafa Powell and the sports newest wunderkind double Olympic champion Usain Bolt.

The names of the athletes were reported via an Italian Newspaper this weekend: Yohan Blake, Marvin Anderson, Sheri-Ann Brooks, Allodin Fothergill and Lanceford Spence. While an unnamed Jamaican official appeared to be happy that "none of the world stars are involved" this is not the kind of news that one wants to hear on the eve of the World Championships and definitely not from a country with the recent history of Jamaica - meteoric rise of several athletes amid the lack of a doping agency in place until just this year.

Though they are not Asafa Powell or Usain Bolt several have been prominent within the sport. Both Anderson and Brooks were on Jamaican 4x1 squads in Beijing last year and Anderson was a finalist in the 200 in Osaka in '07. While Yohan Blake has been on a steady rate of improvement becoming the #3 Jamaican in history in the 100 behind only Bolt and Powell. So simply because they have yet to win global individual medals (being a "star") should not be reason to downplay the news.

Nor should the substance detected - Methylxanthine - be downplayed. Though, we have already seen Dr. Herb Elliott, a member of the IAAF's Medical and Anti-Doping Commission and JADCO, say that "nothing major" is involved in the recently confirmed tests. In truth while it is not listed on the World Anti- Doping Agency prohibited list, Methylxanthine falls within a category of stimulants banned by the agency, anti-doping experts said. As such it's use is in violation of anti doping laws.

Given the statements made by Elliott it will be interesting to see how JADCO and the JAAA deals with this situation. Especially given the stance of Jamaica, it's fans, and it's athletes regarding the drug busts of other countries, where they have publicly adopted a "no tolerance" policy - in spite of the fact they have been lax in putting their own Anti Doping agency in place and have refused to join the Regional Anti Doping Agency in lieu of having their own. Yet in the past when American and European athletes have received positive tests, a single test has been cause to label an athlete a "cheat", with no excuse being good enough for exoneration. Regardless of the purported knowledge of the athlete in question, he/she has been taken to task by Jamaicans as being responsible for what is in their body. And the discovery of a foreign substance "one" time out of tens and hundreds of tests has been met with a cry for life time bans. So it will be interesting to see if they hold their own to this same exacting standard.

Justin Gatlin was held to task for taking Attention Deficit Disorder medication prescribed by a physician and used since he was a preteen. And Torri Edwards was taken to task for ingesting a substance found in a drink she took on foreign soil. Both served bans imposed by the IAAF as a result, as in each case the substances involved were either on the banned list or within a category banned by WADA.

But more importantly, for those with short memories, the dominoes that came crashing down via BALCO started with a drug that was seemingly minor - Modafinil. And of all the lessons that we should have learned from BALCO, one that should be clear is that minor drugs are often used in concert with "major" drugs to achieve varied desired effects! Many of the BALCO athletes that were eventually found to have been using the designer drug THG, also used Modafinil, EPO, HGH and Insulin.

So, rather than settling on the substance as being "minor", a Red Flag should go up that we have FIVE different athletes using the same innocuous drug! So the search should immediately go forward for "what else" may be involved. Because from Ben Johnson, to BALCO we know that "drug cocktails" have been the methodology of the best of the drug cheats. And we learned from BALCO that minor drugs can often be the gateway by which we discover stronger, even undetectable, drugs.

Unfortunately this multiple bust also corroborates comments made last year by Victor Conte (BALCO Chemist) that the drug flow was going through the Caribbean and Jamaica and suggested that WADA and the IAAF send disguised testers into Jamaica to get a handle on the situation. Conte, however, has been seen as bitter by many in the track and field community because of his own incarceration over BALCO and his words were ignored.

And it is here that we see the flaws in a system that seemingly has opened the door for such behavior to exist. Because instead of ensuring that Anti Doping procedures were being followed, the IAAF allowed Jamaica - in an Olympic season - to go WITHOUT having JADCO in place or being a part of the Regional Caribbean Anti Doping Agency. A serious flaw in the system as the anti doping procedure was allowed to be usurped - not only by a member nation, but by the governing body of the sport itself!

There were no repercussions for either action - or lack of action. Instead we were told that they would send testers in to conduct tests (around the time of their Trials) . Not only a conflict of interest since the testing bodies are to be autonomous from the governing faction of the sport, but also condoning the lack of out of competition testing - the period leading up to the major portion of the season being the peak time of "loading" for those athletes that cheat. In addition, Jamaica has no validated testing facility so we have been left in the dark regarding the samples that were taken with no knowledge of samples tested, results, etc - a lack of transparency that exists in this sport when it comes to drug testing in general, another serious flaw in the system. So it will be interesting to see how the IAAF handles the situation now that we have positive tests coming out of a country that has basically been allowed to forgo administering tests up to this point.

Will Jamaica continue to be treated outside of the rule of the Anti Doping Code, or will we see the same actions taken by WADA and the IAAF that have been administered against other nations with athletes in similar circumstances - the imposition of bans. And with the knowledge that the last MAJOR drug scandal (BALCO) that haunted the sport started in a similar manner - a cadre of athletes testing positive for a seemingly innocuous drug - will we see JADCO, WADA, and the IAAF attempt to look deeper into this situation. Will we see them go back and examine previous tests, or possibly utilize other means to further evaluate the athletes in question? Will we see Non Analytical Positives being utilized again? Or will we see further inaction?

And depending on the final outcome of any investigations that are conducted, I am also curious to see how the coaches and associated athletes are treated in response to this matter. In the BALCO situation the coaches were held as liable for the activities of the athletes. The assumption, and subsequent finger pointing, was that if the athlete is doping that the coach knows and is complicit with the program. As a result the coaches of BALCO athletes have been cut off from the sport, and the training partners of some have been looked at with a jaundiced eye - that if doping is occurring within the camp then others are aware and probably doping too.

This is of particular concern as two of the athletes involved in this latest bust (Yohan Blake and Marvin Anderson) are members of the Racers Track Club - as high profile a training camp today as SprintCap, HSI, and Santa Monica Track Club in previous eras. So this has the potential to have the same kind of ramifications on Jamaican sprinting as BALCO did with US sprinting depending on the final disposition of the cases of the athletes involved. Any time drugs are found in your most high profile training camps the potential fallout looms large.

As such this is a very ugly cloud that has come over the sport - as it is any time that doping comes to the fore. We have yet to go more than a couple of seasons in a row this decade without having the integrity of the sprints, and more importantly the sport, called into question. It begs the question from me as to WHY the sport refuses to move away from Urinalysis as its primary method of drug testing and deterrent, to Blood Testing/Blood Passports - a methodology far more exact and capable of monitoring changes within the system even before the specific "substance" has been identified.

If track and field is to move forward and shake free of the shackles that "drugs" continues to belabor it with it is time to make this move! We can ill afford to continue to limp along with a new "scandal" every other season. The reputation of the sport can't continue to take these hits if we have any hope of moving forward and building the sport into the 21st Century. At the very least, the IAAF and WADA should mandate that all nations institute some form of "Project Believe" for their most elite athletes, as the US has done, so that there is NO question as to the cleanliness of the athletes and the legitimacy of their performances. Only by increasing and improving testing - not excusing lack of testing - will the sport improve an image constantly tarnished by positive test results.

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