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Sunday, July 14, 2013

A house of cards? Sprinting crisis as Gay, Powell and more Jamaicans fail controls

A house of cards? Sprinting tumbles down as Gay, then Powell, then Simpson, Carter named as failing drug controls

A frantic two hour period today saw first Tyson Gay, and then Asafa Powell named as having failed doping controls in separate incidents.  More is to come, because Nesta Carter's and Sherone Simpson's names were soon added to a list of four Jamaicans who failed tests at the national championships, and that still may not be the last of the big name Jamaican Olympians implicated in this latest scandal.  As I write this, I've also just read that the coach of the afore-mentioned Caster and Simpson has been detained in Italy.  It was he, allegedly, who provided them with the supplements that were contaminated with a banned stimulant.

Regardless, the hornet's nest may well and truly have been poked.  Usain Bolt is of course the biggest of them all, and his agent was quick to dismiss claims that he is among the four Jamaicans caught in the latest swoop.

Powell's response, issued in the form of a statement on Twitter, was to deny knowingly taking a banned substance.  He did reveal which substance it was - methylsyneprhine.  It is a stimulant that is found in many over-the-counter supplements, which already indicates which way this case will go.  It has become relatively common for supplements to be implicated as the source of banned substances, though of course the strict liability rules negate this as a valid excuse.

The Tyson Gay positive is a different matter.  We don't know yet what substance it was, but David Epstein is following the story, and his contacts and nous in this area of doping make him a Twitter must-follow if you want to stay on top of the both the Jamaican sprinters, and the Tyson Gay situation.

I would be lying if I said I was not personally disappointed to read Tyson Gay's name alongside the words "tested positive" today.  He was the sport's much needed foil to Usain Bolt.  Calm, quiet and respectful to the brash, loud and showboating Jamaican.  The head-to-head between them would have been a highlight of Moscow.  There has been no denial from Gay, just a statement that included this:
"I don’t have a sabotage story. I put my trust in someone and was let down.  I don’t have anything to say to make this seem like it was a mistake or it was on USADA’s (United States Anti-Doping Agency) hands, someone playing games. I don’t have any of those stories.  I made a mistake. I know exactly what went on, but I can’t discuss it right now. I hope I am able to run again, but I will take whatever punishment I get like a man"

The supplement defence - convenient, sometimes truthful, but damaged by 

With regards to the Jamaican case, it is already clear that all three (Powell, Carter and Simpson) are heading down the path of the contaminated supplement defence (this seems likely, at the time of writing).  Sources suggest that a supplement, recently introduced to the training group, is the source, either via contamination, failure to include the name on the label, or carelessness on the part of the coaches and athletes to confirm the safety of the supplement.

This may become very important in the defence, because there is, in a sense, "safety in numbers".  Back in 2010, I covered the case of two South African rugby players, Bjorn Basson and Chiliboy Ralepele, who failed a test for methylhexanamine.  Their claim?  It was part of a supplement they had taken, but which had been cleared by the company and the sports federation as being "clean".  Their defense was stronger for their shared testimony, because they were able to pass off the 'liability' as belonging to another party.  That is, they argued that they had done everything possible to ensure no contamination, and were thus (correctly, in my opinion) exonerated.

A similar thing might be possible for Jamaican sprinters, IF they have all used the same supplement, with some record of its 'clearance'.  At least, that's what they will be hoping for.  As David asked, if 3 Jamaican sprinters from one club test positive for the same potential contaminant or unlisted ingredient, what would you make of it?

My impression, and I'd love for someone to validate this, is that we've seen a pretty high frequency of "unlucky" positives coming out of Jamaica in recent years.  Athletes who have failed tests but escaped with reduced sentences because of extenuating circumstances.  One such circumstance is inadvertent use, for which lenient sentences are sometimes handed down.  It was just a month ago that Veronica Campbell-Brown failed a test for a banned diuretic and was suspended by the federation.  Her defence revolves around a similar claim - in this instance, the banned substance is part of a cream being used to treat a leg injury, and pivotal to the claim is whether the substance appears on the label.  Yohan Blake faced a similar case, though his was complicated by the recent exclusion of methylhexanamine from the banned list.

Part of me feels sympathy at those explanations, because the supplement industry is, to quote David, the wild west, where pretty much anything goes and the athlete faces a daunting challenge to 'get lucky' or avoid all supplements.  We saw it in South Africa, and it was seen so often in 2010 that I somewhat satirically named methylhexanamine the drug of the year.  It was a textbook illustration of the challenge faced by athletes.

But there's also part of me that feels the excuse is too ready-made, too easy because it is in essence, almost unprovable.

The concept of strict liability, which states that the athlete is liable for every substance in their bodies, was created specifically to plug this potential gap - in a world where every doping positive could be blamed on accidental ingestion from a supplement or medicine, doping control would be impotent.  And Jamaican sprinters seem unluckier than most, it must be said, when it comes to inadvertent doping.

So once again, the skeptic in me sees statements rushed out via Twitter, and claims that the coach has been arrested because he is the one who prescribed the supplements, and sees them as more of the same deception that has wormed its way into all sport.  It's very difficult to believe these excuses, though ironically, some of them are arguably true.  However, much like the debate we had last week around cycling has shown, the excuses and the valid explanations have all been lumped together, and taken away from the honest by those who cheated with impunity, who have discredited even valid explanations.

The Jamaican story is nowhere near completion.

Changing behavior - a painful and necessary process

Another point worth considering is that the frequency of testing in track and field, particularly in Jamaica, has been very low.  It's been reported that only one single out of competition test prior to the London Olympics in 2012.  This sudden "deluge" may be the result of an increase in testing frequency, and long may it continue.  It is only with scrutiny and significant skepticism that behavior will change.  Unfortunately, part of that behavior change is the 'pain' of heroes falling.  

It may be the catalyst for education - stay away from supplements, dear athletes.  There is little evidence that they work anyway, so the upside is small, and as you can see from Asafa and co, the downside is potentially enormous.

It may be the catalyst for more skepticism, which is only ever a good thing.  Again, this came up just last week against the backdrop of skepticism in cycling, but it is as relevant, and perhaps even more important in other sports, because they have not had their dark secrets exposed nearly as much in tell-all books, and by persistent journalists.  Sometimes, it is necessary to burn something down, or blow it up, in order to rebuild it, and as painful as it is to be denied, for instance, the Bolt vs Gay showdown in Moscow, it is necessary for the sport.  Unless of course one wishes to argue that doping should be legalized, to avoid these controversies.  That is an entirely separate debate, but one that is bound to be energized by the disillusionment all fans would have felt earlier today, when one name after the next fell in one of sprinting's darkest days.

That is a debate for another day.  These stories, both Gay's and the Jamaican's, have yet to be fully written.  Follow David Epstein and Juliet Macur for updates, they are on it!  I will weigh in in due course.

There is also the matter of the Tour to cover, and more significant debate to decipher.  That too, in good time.