Wednesday, 23 July 2008

Drug Taking and the 'Olympic Express': Jamaican Sprinting, Victor Conte and the BBC!

Come August 15, 2008 most Jamaicans will be sure to pay special attention when the track and field component of the Games of the XXIX (29th) Olympiad, in Beijing, China, sprint out of the blocks. All eyes will be on the Men’s One Hundred Metres. Usain Bolt and Asafa Powell, the current World Record Holder in the event and the former World Record Holder, respectively, will be the major drawing cards. However, American double World Champion in the sprints, in Osaka last year, Tyson Gay has also been billed by an International Amateur Athletics Federation (IAAF) reporter as the last third in the triumvirate of premier male sprinters. He could spoil the Jamaican party.

In fact, a noticeable pall came over a group of revellers at the Save Our Soca (SOS) event in Waterworks, St. Andrew, at which I was in attendance, two weeks ago Sunday when news broke that American double World Champion Tyson Gay had run 9.68 seconds at the United States (US) National Athletic Trials. I became instantly worried by this ‘troubling development’, notwithstanding my later discovery that Gay had not broken Usain’s World Record. I tried my best to hide my concerns, at the time, by ensuring that my clothes were soaking wet when I left the fete. But that is for another blog…!

Of immediate concern is what will happen when the showdown happens in the Men's One Hundred Meters in Track and Fields in Beijing. Most are likely to be on the edge of our chairs even in the aftermath of Victor Conte’s very disturbing comments to the Los Angeles (LA) Times newspaper, at the weekend, that drug cheating is rampant in the Caribbean. We will not immediately concern ourselves, however, with the ‘warnings’ of the disgraced, United States (US) based, scientific nutritionist and founder of the defamed Bay Area Laboratory (BALCO), which was at the centre of sports largest doping scandal in 2003.

All the signs of a keenly contested battle between the three stars have been in the making for some time now. News of Tyson Gay’s injury at the same US Trials sent tremors fthroughout the US Track and Field circuit, as it did here and elsewhere! What would this mean for the outcome of the Olympics for the American and what of the American sprint relay team? Then, Asafa Powell pulled out of the finals of the 100m in Paris, recently, due to the flare up of a groin injury. An audible gasp was heard across Jamaica, as many wondered whether this meant that Jamaica would get only one medal in the premier sprint event at the Olympics, as well as our World Record ambitions in the Men’s Sprint Relays (4 X 100m).

Despite news from Powell’s press agent Paul Doyle that the injury was minor and that the Jamaican would rest for a few days before running again, shockwaves not unlike the recent earthquake which disrupted our Sunday evening routines on July 13, were coming fast and furious. Finally, the Powell-Bolt clash today (Tuesday, July 22, 2008) confirmed the hype, after the bust of the Jamaican National Trials, where both athletes literally jogged to tape, denying fans the much anticipated 'showdown'. Today, Powell got the upper hand of his countryman and the current record holder Bolt, by one one-hundredths of a second. They were timed in 9.88 and 9.89 seconds, respectively.

As you can imagine, excitement is more than fever pitch! And, that is only on the men’s side ; certainly, just in the shorter sprint. Bolt’s recent 19.67 seconds over 200 meters has clearly marked him as the man to beat in both events in Beijing. In that regard, the British Broadcasting Corporation 's (BBC) current coverage of doping violations in sports, which it is looking at as part of the run up coverage to the Olympics and Conte’s LATimes comments, only serve to train the search light even more on Jamaica.

Do not forget also that, Bolt’s May 31 World Record at the Icahn Stadium in New York was downplayed because of similar concerns about doping, at the time. Both Bolt and Glen Mills, his coach, were clear in highlighting that there was no likelihood of them failing a drug test as they are a hundred percent clean. Powell and his Maximum Velocity and Power (MVP) training camp partner Sherone Simpson, the fastest woman in both sprints in 2006, have routinely insisted that they do not take drugs and that they are tested all the time, both during as well as out of competitions. If true, Conte’s remarks about the notoriety of Caribbean athletes for missing out of competition tests would not apply either to Powell or Simpson, indeed, the entire MVP camp.

Mike Fennel, President of the Jamaica Olympic Association (JOA) solidly defended Jamaica’s testing capabilities, which Conte suggested was sadly lacking in the LA Times report. Quoted in the same story, Fennel said: "[a]ll our top athletes who are continuously performing abroad are tested every time they compete in these big meets abroad . . . so anybody who wants to make comments about our attention to testing, our anti-doping measures are doing that with malicious attempt and are just being bad-minded because we are good. And people don't like [you] when we are good." Fennel was speaking to Jamaica Observer, last Friday on the same matter.

So what, if any, can we learn from the Conte’s remarks and Jamaica’s sprinting prowess, especially as our Olympic Express targets Beijing in less than three weeks? If, indeed, the Jamaican sprinters are as clean, as Fennel maintains, then there is need to urgently question the integrity of the international agenda in its seemingly unusual focus on Jamaican/ Caribbean sprinting. Regardless of how you feel about Conte and his remarks, if ever proven to be true, they would most certainly implicate our much loved sporting traditions; our administrative capabilities; as well as, some of our revered heroes including current Olympic Champion Veronica Campbell-Brown (from the Athens Games) and the late, great Herb McKennley and others. The untold damage to our illustrious history as a small but potent sporting nation is obvious.

Note, I am not suggesting that Conte’s remarks, by themselves, are the only reason for this comment. After all, Conte, himself, has very little credibility. He recently spent time in prison for selling steroids to many highly decorated US athletes, including disgraced sprint sensation and former Olympic champion Marion Jones, who had constantly denied taking drugs. Last year, however, news broke that she had lied to government officials about drug taking and had also committed cheque fraud. Her connections with Conte and her former coach Trevor Graham, himself a Jamaican, effectively, made her a prime suspect in the case - a classic case of 'show me your company and I will tell you who you are'! Graham was convicted, after all, on one count of lying to federal investigators, recently, after reportedly sending a syringe with performance enhancing drugs to authorities.

'Secrets in the Blood'

The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), in its new radio series Secrets in the Blood, is also committed to ferreting out drug cheats in sports by calling into question anti-doping mechanisms used by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). According to the BBC, WADA's current technology are not properly calibrated to catch all who try to beat the system. The programme looks, specifically, at the legitimacy of claims that substances like ‘EPO’ (Erythropoietin) are being widely abused by many athletes, especially those who will be competing in Beijing and what can realistically be done to address this. EPO which is also called hematopoietin or hemopoietin is produced by the liver and kidney, naturally. It is the hormone that regulates red blood cell production and also has other known biological functions. EPO plays an important role in the brain's response to neuronal injury and is also involved in the wound healing process.

It is fair to assume that athletes gain an edge on the competition by administering, in controlled doses, substances like EPO as way of ensuring that their endurance and performance levels are at peak. Less time spent recovering from injuries and such like means more which is devoted to being on the track and or in the gym training. This is necessary for the career defining moments like Beijing and before that, Osaka, Japan last year. Only yesterday the BBC’s World Have Your Say Blog looked at whether athletes should be allowed to use drugs. Though not in the majority, a vast number of respondents seemed in favour of this. Why?

According to some: very little is, actually, known about the effects of drugs and how to appropriately test for them. Most notable among the views expressed were those of one blogger who goes by the moniker Uncomfortable Reality. In his/ her view, performance ehancing drugs have been given a (very) bad wrap. Athletes should only be disqualified from taking drugs because the rules say so and not because they are, necessarilly, bad. By allowing athletes to use drugs like EPO, THG (also known as ‘The Cear’) and others, more athletes get a chance to push themselves to their 'real' limits. Such views, as you might imagine, only creates the impression that drug taking should be a 'natural' part of sport. Never mind actual talent. Indeed, never mind fairness, all that matters, according to the bloggers like Uncomfortable Reality, is that athletes are able to showcase their ‘talents’ for all to see - with the help of performance enhancing drugs, of course!

On the other hand, officially, the BBC maintains that, whereas the implications of the indiscriminate use of performance enhancing substances are known, very little information is available to determine their effects when carefully administered in a laboratory or medical setting. Both China, who will be staging this year’s Olympics, and India have been identified as the primary sites for purchasing these drugs at fairly cheap prices on the Internet. According to the BBC report, they were able to purchase knock-off EPO on the Web for approximately US$50. In the process, arguing that, WADA is only able to test for and catch those who use the standard versions of this drug. However, it fails abysmally in the cases of knock-offs.

Beyond the obvious issue of the questioning of WADA's credibility and the integrity of the Beijing Games, there is another worrrisome development here, as well. The possible conflation between suspicions about India and China, as outposts for criminality, and the reading of ‘Third World’ as a generic category to read as ‘not white and Western’ could, quite possibly, lead to the less than promising view that athletes outside of Europe and America are likely drug cheats. ‘Third World’ athletes like Jamaica's sprinters and others might, therefore, be viewed as indiscriminate abusers of said drugs. After all, Jamaica is neither, predominantly white nor, truly, Western. There can be no doubt, then, that Conte’s remarks are, somehow, connected to these claim, if even by way of coincidence.

Questions about our standards for testing athletes of the calibre of Usain, Asafa, Veronica and Sherone, are naturally counter productive; that is, in the absence of evidence to stake the credibility of such claims. They shift focus away from the commendable achievements of these bright, young Jamaicans to highlight instead fear and embarrassment. That Fennel’s defense may also be read as a forceful rebuttal of Conte’s smear campaign speaks volumes about what to expect when the Jamaican Olympic Express rolls into Beijing. Even Dr. Herb Elliot, a Jamaican member of the International Amateur Athletics Federation’s (IAAF) Medical and Anti-Doping Commission and top enforcement official here, was quoted by the LA Times story. He is reported to have told the Christian Science Monitor last month, "We are far in advance of the U.S. record for [preventing] doping. We preach, cajole, and test. . . . Sports is such a part of our culture that the disgrace [of doping] is so great that the Jamaicans that live here wouldn't even consider it."

While, I am not suggesting that the BBC is complicit with the obvious nastiness of the Conte remarks, there can be no doubting the anti-Chinese sentiments embedded in such narratives which call into question China’s legitimacy as a growing world power. As a matter of fact, several weeks ago the Olympic Flame, the ultimate symbol of the goals of the Games, had been attacked several times in Paris and other parts of Europe. And that was only the start. There were reports of protest marches and several other incidents in which Chinese Secret Service personnel were called in to defend the Flame against further attacks. Why?

People were upset about the award of the Summer Games to the Peoples’ Republic of China, largely, because of its less than impressive human rights and even trade record. Note, sports and, most certainly, the Olympics which had their roots in Ancient Greece are supposed to represent the highest expressions of human courage, grit and determination, to say nothing of joy and celebration and the anguish of defeat and the disappointment of failure. In the words of CLR James, Trinidadian scholar, academic and philosopher, sports, definitely, go ‘beyond the boundary’. Under the label “Citius, Altius, Fortius” (Faster, Higher, Stronger), the Olympics represent the crowning achievements of our highest human selves.

One has to be prepared, then, to expect some sort of backlash if Jamaica wins any of the premier sprints events in greater numbers than the occasional one or two reserved for non-American athletes. Our Olympic Express rolls into the Orient, as a result, under what appears to be a cloud of suspicion a-la Victor Conte, et al.


Long said...

Hm! While you're busy grumbling - in rather erudite fashion, thank you - that the US and Britain must have some ulterior motives for raising the question about doping among Jamaican athletes, you might also want to make sure you ask and have an answer to other questions: where is their question coming from? Is there some connection that is being made that we are failing to overlook because we too busy a boas' off an a tell' dem seh dem grudgeful an' red-yeye? Has there ever been a threat or close call among the Jac'n athletes? Why have we not asked these questions publicly of our athletes and been assured by them in some way that this is not something we have to worry about? Is the assurance of Dr. Elliott enough?

You definitely don't want to err too far on the side of the nationalist reactionary so that you have egg on your face should it be disclosed that there is something we need to worry about.

Unless they put up some kryptonite fence around the athletes, I don't see how they could NOT be susceptible to the temptation of doping. And that possibility is clear in Dr. Elliott's statement. One does not have to "preach, cajole and test" if doping is such an impossibility.

I do hope the athletes have sense and integrity, but I am not that naive. And neither should you be.

Long said...

The New York Times article read somewhat differently, but raises questions that we ought to get answers to, rather than presuming that badmindedness is the sole motivator:

Raw Politics....Jamaica Style! said...

Long Bench, as always, thanks for your comments. Insightful as always.

But, in truth, I have no doubts that the comments made by Victor Conte are important, especially when considered in the context of the BBC reports "Secrets in the Blood". What is even more disturbing is that we are not sufficiently addressing the matter, beyond a matter of denials which, like Marion Jones, could turn out to be untrue.

Of greater significance though, is the fact that the ideology of sports as something other than competition on a field is somehow not being interrogated sufficiently, in terms of the agendas of those who criticise. Jamaican sports theorists, analysts and onlookers need to get with the programme and look to see what is really going on, not just on the field of play, but in terms of sports as an important part of building/ generating national pride. How far and to what extent might we learn something of significance from our athletic prowess and what implications, if any, drug-taking (if ever discovered) will have on that process? Those are the serious questions which need to be asked, in my view.

It is not sufficient for Conte and others to point fingers and complain and for us to simply say that. We have to tell our own story and know, in a real way, the implications of a doping scandal for our own programme, culture and society. Indeed, to the extent that we seem so bent on only seeing fast times is, itself, very telling in this regard. So, I am agreed with you. Just hope that the "smarties" around here get this before it is too late!

longbench said...

I think your response to my comments should be aired in the public discussions that are taking already place. Dat Conte bwoy is a facety raass, yes. And we ought to tell him so. But let's make sure that we are also doing what we need to do to make sure that doping doesn't become a problem that gets out of control, like so many other things have. One love!

Raw Politics....Jamaica Style! said...

Thanks, Long. I will look into it. It appears that if you do not say the "right things" to these media, they do not print your comments. I will send them a letter all the same.

I will also publish others which were either published in the past, as well as those which were rejected. Most recent among them is my view on the subject of the proposed Patois Bible and my critique of some Observer columnist who did not take well to the National Anthem being criticised! How tiresome! But, I digress...!

I shall act on your advice, posthaste!

Thanks and Take care!



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