Jamaica's Record-Beating Athletes & The Country's Fight Against Banned Substances

Can Jamaica's dominance on the running track continue amid accusations of mass doping? 

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Jamaica has been producing world-beating athletes since long before Bolt and Blake sprinted into the record books, but a new storm of high-profile doping scandals is threatening to ruin the island’s reputation for fair play. As the athletics world gears up for the  commonwealth games, with Jamaica expected to star again, Esquire reports from kingston on a nation facing intense suspicion.

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Sixty policemen, holding long, thin batons, line the perimeter of the track. I hadn’t noticed them arrive; they filed into the stadium by stealth. Now they stand 10 metres apart, backs to the action, eyes fixed on the swaying mass in this bowl of 30,000 people, dancing, shouting and singing, bouncing up and down, blowing vuvuzelas.

And then the army appears. As soon as the sporting action finishes, equally young men in fatigues march in and fan across the track, separating one team from the other as they re-emerge for trophies and a closing ceremony, for which spectators are encouraged — nay, implored — to stay.

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Later will come the after-parties, the police ban on such events having been lifted. “Promoters promise violence free events” was the splash in the morning’s tabloid Jamaica Star, trumpeting the lifting of a curfew imposed “after a surge in violent clashes” between fans of opposing teams.

On Monday, the same paper will report some good news: there were no murders following the games.

Welcome to Champs: Jamaica’s inter-secondary schools’ boys and girls’ athletics championships. Yes, athletics. And yes, schools.

They don’t do athletics in Jamaica like they do it elsewhere. For the schools, many of them more than a century old and with a proud athletics tradition, there is much at stake — a fact underlined by the intensity of the occasion. The supporters, a mix of current and former pupils, stand in blocks according to school; it isn’t clear whether this was self-segregation, or — as the presence of the police suggested — because they were kept apart.

I had been told about Champs before travelling to Kingston — it was all I was told about. “You won’t believe the atmosphere.” “Trust me, nothing compares to Champs.” I would nod politely, thinking: it may be amazing, but let’s not get carried away. I’ve been to Old Firm derbies. This is a schools’ event. And, sure, school sports day could get a little rowdy, but come on. Wise up.

On day one, with the stands of the 52-year-old National Stadium — it opened the year Jamaica gained independence in 1962; it was here that Bob Marley played his One Love Peace Concert in 1978 — still to fill with people, I pick up the official programme and begin reading. Page two contains the first clue that this is no ordinary schools’ championship. From next year, it says, drug testing will be introduced. “It is such a pity that the hard work and natural talent of our young athletes is now being scrutinised with suspicion,” reads the editorial before going on to question whether this is to ensure fairness, protect “Brand Jamaica”, or to “appease international critics.”

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Scrutiny, suspicion and international criticism: all have rained down on Jamaica since six athletes — including Asafa Powell, the former 100m world record holder, and also one schoolboy — tested positive for banned substances last year. But these cases were followed by more disturbing revelations.

Renee Anne Shirley, the former executive director of the Jamaican Anti-Doping Commission (Jadco), went public with her concerns that the island’s drug-testing body was hopelessly ineffective and complacent, carrying out only one out-of-competition test in the run-up to the London Olympics. 

In summer 2012, Jamaica would go on to dominate the sprint events, Usain Bolt winning the men’s 100m and 200m and Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce winning the women’s 100m. That wasn’t all: Bolt led a one-two in the 100m, and a clean sweep in the 200m, with Yohan Blake and Warren Weir second and third. These three were not just from the same (tiny) country, they were from the same club, with the same coach. Indeed, all three were born in one corner of the island: Bolt and Weir in Trelawny, Blake in Montego Bay.

For some, including US track legend Carl Lewis, the glut of doping cases vindicated long-held suspicions; the nine-time Olympic gold medallist says it is right to ask questions. Meanwhile, Jamaica’s superstars like Bolt have dismissed Lewis’s comments as “attention seeking” and a deliberate attempt to “taint the sport”.

The fall of Lance Armstrong brought the issue of drugs in sport to the forefront. Jamaica’s sprint factory was to be the next sporting fairy tale to come under scrutiny.

Champs runs for five days, building and building to its grand finale — each day I was told: “just wait until you see it tomorrow”. Come the final day, the National Stadium is full (the gates are locked at 4pm; it finishes at 9pm) and the noise of bands tussling with vuvuzelas is overwhelming. The stories about violence and the presence of the police seem grotesquely out of place; the atmosphere is exuberant rather than menacing.

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And the talent on display is breathtaking. “Beautiful,” purrs Keith Barnier, head track and field coach at Abilene Christian University (ACU) in Texas, one of several US college coaches who have come to Champs to recruit talent. The talent-ID part of this process is, says Barnier, “easy as hell. Just look at these guys. They jog faster than my guys run. Beautiful.”

They have more than this, Barnier adds: “they’re soldiers and Champs prepares them for war. They’re fighters, but they’re really easy to coach. They don’t mess around. The coaches don’t mess around.” If there is a secret, says Barnier, this is it: “good coaching. And they give a shit. Track and field is a priority. And it’s a cheap sport, and these kids are poor. Not just poor; a lot of them come from poverty. Hope is so important and these kids, a lot of ’em, are running for a better life.
“I’m handing out $46,000-a-year scholarships,” Barnier continues, “and their coaches want them to go to college, not work in a grocery store.”

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I catch up with Coach Barnier every day — he is ebullient and affable, and high on the prospect of luring some of these athletes to ACU to bolster his track and field team — as he spends increasing amounts of time in what he calls “the boiler room”, the warm-up track, haggling with high school coaches. “I’d tell you how long I spent there today,” he says on the last day, holding up an empty wrist, “but I traded my watch.” For an athlete? He winks, adding that one coach had offered him the pick of his athletes if Bernier could secure his own son a basketball scholarship.

As in 2013, records are broken. Bolt’s 11-year-old 400m mark is improved by Javon Francis, who, as the charged atmosphere in the stadium somehow intensifies, performs his own version of Bolt’s famous thunderbolt gesture before dropping to the track and, à la Bolt again, doing press-ups (pathetic efforts, it has to be said, though he can be forgiven). As he gets up his legs wobble, he crumples to the track and is loaded onto a stretcher before clambering once more to his feet, possibly because he remembers he’s got the 200m in a couple of hours.

Zharnel Hughes (an 18-year-old Anguillan with a Jamaican mother who has lived and trained in Jamaica for two years but is likely to represent Great Britain at the Olympics) breaks Yohan Blake’s 100m record. In total, 21 Champs records are broken over five days. As Bolt and Blake, the two fastest men in history, are almost completely written out of the record books, the message seems clear: the Jamaicans’ domination is set to continue beyond the current crop of superstars.

But so is the suspicion.


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There is anger in Jamaica at the scepticism that has accompanied their athletes’ success. When Anne Shirley wrote about the failings of Jadco in Sports Illustrated — an American publication, which made it worse as far as some were concerned — she was, she says, “called a Judas, a traitor; people said that I’d committed treason; my passport should be taken away...”

Some feel that the world’s suspicion only betrays its ignorance. They have a point in so far as much of the world doesn’t realise what athletics means to Jamaicans, and that any runner of promise is likely to end up not as a footballer, basketball player or even a cricketer, but on a track.

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Every Jamaican school has a rudimentary grass running track and an athletics coach, but there are various theories as to why track and field has become as closely identified with national identity as Bob Marley, ranging from the fact that one of the heroes of independence, Norman Manley, was a sprinting star at Champs in 1910 (its first year), or that Gerald Foster was a world-class sprinter who tried to compete for Jamaica at the 1908 Olympics in London — he sailed there on a banana boat only to be denied the right to compete as Jamaica wasn’t affiliated to the IOC — but went on to beat the world’s best at post-Games meetings (today, the college established in Foster’s name trains the country’s athletics coaches).

Others say the roots of the phenomenon began with Arthur Wint’s 400m gold medal at the London Games in 1948 and that the Bolt-led charge since 2008 has only deepened the island’s obsession.

The emphasis on schools’ athletics is surely a legacy of Jamaica’s years as a British colony, when so many of these institutions, modelled on British public schools, were established by expats with athletics and cricket (the other national obsession) the staple sports. It is tempting to see Champs as the cradle, the wellspring, but the process actually begins long before.

Top schools like Calabar and Kingston College recruit the best talent from all over the island, sometimes, allegedly, in exchange for “gifts” for the parents: deals that are typically brokered not by the schools but former pupils. Refrigerators are said to be the favoured currency for trading in school-age athletes.

Technically speaking, it is not allowed. But smoking ganja is illegal, and you can hardly walk down a street in Jamaica without smelling it.

The day after Champs, I visit Dennis “DJ” Johnson, the fastest man in the world in the early Sixties, in his home on one of the hills overlooking Kingston. Of the spate of recent positive tests, Johnson says, “the whole thing is stupid. They took a supplement and in the supplement is a banned thing.” He is talking about the high-profile cases of Asafa Powell and Sherone Simpson, who claimed they didn’t realise the supplements they were taking contained banned drugs.

“The rules should be about stopping people cheating,” Johnson continues. "They weren’t trying to cheat!”

Johnson, dogmatic and unyielding in his mid-seventies, is the “father” of the current generation of Jamaican sprinters. He in turn was coached by the grandfather, Herb McKenley, a member of the 4 x 400 relay team that won the nation a gold medal at the 1952 Olympics. “Herb was a beautiful person,” Johnson says of his mentor, while Donald Quarrie, the Olympic 200m champion in 1976, says, “there’s a bit of Herb in every Jamaican athlete” (an accidental double entendre in the land of the “holy herb”).

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Johnson was a winner at Champs in 1958 before going to San José State University on an athletics scholarship. There, he was part of “Speed City”, a group of sprinters coached by Bud Winter. Winter, an American, had spent the war teaching fighter pilots how to relax, and he did the same with athletes (and wrote a book, Relax and Win).

In 1966, with his sporting career behind him and his head buzzing with Winter’s ideas, Johnson returned to Jamaica and to his father’s questions about what he was going to do with his degree. “I told my father I was going to teach people how to run: how to sprint. He had a fit. ‘Who the hell would make a career out of that?’”

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Johnson did. He wrote to a cigarette company, Carreras, who agreed to sponsor his crusade; then he toured the island with a mobile cinema, showing track and field films in the evenings and visiting schools during the day, teaching kids how to run fast. He also invited Bud Winter to give a talk in Kingston, and among those in the audience was Glen Mills, who today is coach to Bolt, Blake, Weir and the latest Champs star, Zharnel Hughes. “Mills is more Bud Winter than Bud Winter,” Johnson chuckles.

“What you were looking at yesterday,” Johnson says of Champs, and performances from some young athletes that were sublime bordering on ridiculous, “most of it comes from my philosophy, which I took from Bud. But I introduced that to Jamaica. You understand?”

I’m not sure I do.

“Look,” he says, “we are doing things that nobody else is doing! We have two million people. The US has 300m. India has one billion. And it never occurred to anyone to run the relay the way we do it.”

This, Johnson goes on to explain, is to put the fastest man first, because, thanks to baton changes, he runs the furthest. It’s a small, simple thing, he explains, but emblematic of the stupidity, or myopia, of the rest of the world. People like to have existing ideas reinforced. They don’t innovate. “I can talk about sprinting until next week,” Johnson says. “But when I watch Champs, I cry sometimes. Where in the world do you see that?
“And I tell you we are not going to lose any sprints for the next 50 years.”

Fifty?

“Yes, man.”

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Doctor Paul Wright is another Jamaican who, like Anne Shirley, went public with his criticisms of the Jamaican Anti-Doping Commission. He told the BBC he believed last year’s positive tests could be the “tip of the iceberg”. What was so alarming about his comments was that Wright has been a Jadco drug-tester since its formation in 2008. In March this year, it was reported he had been fired. “There is no successful whistle-blower who is not a pariah,” he told local media.

I meet Dr Wright in his cluttered office at the Nuttall Hospital at the busy Cross Roads intersection in New Kingston. A small television set on top of a filing cabinet is showing a football match, PSG versus Chelsea. The other surfaces are filled with trophies. All for horse racing, he tells me; he owns two horses.

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The phone on his desk rings incessantly: today, finally, is the day of the verdict in the Sherone Simpson case, nine months after she tested positive. In two days, it is Powell’s turn (both will be given 18-month suspensions, and declare their intention to appeal).

Wright tells me that, contrary to the reports, he wasn’t fired by Jadco. “I was never fired, because to fire somebody you have to have them on a contract.” Instead, Wright and the other drug testers were paid per test: 10,000 Jamaican dollars, which is roughly £54, even if the test involved an eight-hour round trip to Trelawny. “Idiot money,” says Wright.

Things began to go wrong for Jadco in late 2011, Wright says, when the World Anti-Doping Authority (WADA) declared itself unhappy at the composition of the board. There were too many vested interests, they said; too many people with links either to the government or to elite sport, and therefore to those being tested. The board was dismissed.

“At the same time, elections came up and the country voted out the old government,” Wright says. “I was drug-testing all along, but in January [2012], with the new government, nothing. Nothing in February. Nothing in March.” There were no tests because there was no new board. “So, I drive to Jamaica House to see the prime minister [Portia Simpson Miller],” Wright recalls. “I say, ‘This is Olympic year. We are the best sprinters in the world. If we don’t test the year of the Olympics, people are going to believe we’re hiding something.’”

Wright told the prime minister (who also holds the sports portfolio) that a board should be appointed immediately, and recommended some names, as well as advising some to be avoided. “That was Wednesday. Friday, the new board is announced.”
But this board, although the names were new, had the old problem: too many potential conflicts of interest. “I call and say, ‘What are you doing?’ She said, ‘Dr Wright, these are our friends. They have spent their life contributing to sports… you must stop maligning people of integrity.’”

There was a graver problem: still no testing. Thus, the Jamaican team went to London 2012 having hardly been tested by the national doping agency (though the highest profile athletes would have been tested in-competition and by the international athletics federation). Anne Shirley and Dr Wright simmered with frustration.

They were angry not at the athletes, but at Jamaica’s authorities. “I am more Jamaican than anyone,” Wright protests, “but you can’t let that stop you doing your job. And we couldn’t do our job.

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“In the medical profession, you have doctors who sign sick leave for people who are not sick,” he says. “You have bad lawyers. You have people who murder children. Bad people everywhere. But, in athletics, everyone is related to Pope Francis!”
He isn’t saying all the athletes are “bad” — “no! But what I want is to be able to prove that to the world. This is what I say to them: don’t let them think you’re hiding something.”

At the end of a bruising 2013, the Jadco board resigned en masse, WADA arrived in Jamaica for an “extraordinary audit”, and The Wall Street Journal claimed that the Jadco chairman, Herb Elliott, had fabricated his CV, including qualifications in biochemistry and medicine for which the universities in question had no record. (Elliott countered by saying that those universities wouldn’t give out that information over the phone.)

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Worse followed when the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) catalogued a list of failings that led to one of the island’s Olympic champions, Veronica Campbell-Brown, being cleared of a doping offence despite a banned substance showing up in her urine.

In a 58-page report that read like a charge sheet, CAS said that Jadco had “persistently failed to comply” with global drug-testing standards, which amounted to a “systematic and knowing failure… [that] is deplorable and gives rise to the most serious concerns about the overall integrity” of the anti-doping programme.

Next day, another blow, with the deputy chairman of Jamaica’s anti-doping disciplinary panel, an attorney-at-law, arrested for running a prostitution ring in Montego Bay.

Now Jadco reconvenes again with a new chairman, Danny Williams, a respected businessman who has no formal links to sport. That’s the whole point, he tells me. “It’s not for the board to get involved in day-to-day administration. Our job is to get good staff in.

“By and large, we think our athletes are clean,” Williams continues. “We have started an education programme in schools, and we intend to start testing at Champs next year.”

Having turned down an offer of help from Travis Tygart, head of the US Anti-Doping Agency (who brought down Lance Armstrong), they are being mentored by the Canadian anti-doping agency. “They are holding our hands, and that is proving very helpful,” Williams says.

Before leaving Jamaica, I meet Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, the effervescent world and Olympic 100m champion, who received a six-month ban in 2010 after taking the painkiller oxycodone, for toothache (she had delayed root canal treatment until she’d competed in a race in China but the pain became so severe on the flight over that she took painkillers offered to her by her coach, which he was taking for kidney stones).

More recently, she threatened to go on strike if the Jamaican athletics federation and Jadco didn’t get their house in order and offer the athletes more support, complaining: “You listen to accusations about Jamaica’s athletes and there is no one to get up, take the mic and say, ‘What you are saying is a lie.’ They are just sitting back enjoying the benefits and fruits of our labour but when it’s time to actually do their jobs they are not doing it.”

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Her own transgression was a mistake, insists Fraser-Pryce, but she cannot afford another one — a second offence carries the possibility of a life ban. “A lot of our athletes are naive, I think,” she says. “I think they should read more, research more, try to get educated on what’s out there.

“They think if they’re putting something in their mouth that they think is not illegal, they’re OK. That’s been the downfall for a lot of Jamaican athletes. That’s why education is so important, because it’s a minefield.

“The only thing I put in my mouth now is food and vitamins that you buy in a pharmacy, because I’m so scared about what’s out there,” she says. “If something happens, God forbid, that’s it for me. So I can’t be careless.”

I meet Fraser-Pryce, who in the expected absence of Bolt is likely to be the biggest Jamaican star at this year’s XX Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, in her newly opened hair salon, Chic Hair Ja, in a plush business park in New Kingston.

She has come a long way from the Waterhouse ghetto where she grew up with her mother, a street vendor, and two brothers “in what was called a tenement yard. It was a small house, about the size of this,” she indicates the reception area of her salon.
“Four of us were sleeping on one bed, and we had to turn different ways so we could all fit,” she says. “Sometimes I had my brother’s feet in my mouth.”

Yohan Blake — who missed most of 2013 with injury but made his return to competition two weeks after Champs at the UTech Classic, also in the National Stadium — had a similar background in Montego Bay. When I met him, he was frank about his reasons for running: “The drive for me was to get my mum out of poverty, to get myself out of poverty. You see what your parents are going through, the suffering, and you want to take them out of that.”

Both Blake and Fraser-Pryce have foundations to help disadvantaged young people in Jamaica, with Blake recently opening a residential centre and Fraser-Pryce’s Pocket Rocket Foundation paying for seven inner-city children to attend school.

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Jamaica, an island nation built on slavery and colonialism, is a place of duality and contradiction: of spectacular beauty and rotting slums; of abundant natural resources, with signs warning against the danger of falling mangoes — and chronic poverty; of warmth and friendliness and also everyday violence.

There are 1,500 gun deaths a year, almost 300 at the hands of the police. Jamaica is a place where corruption is endemic and many politicians (and sports administrators) hold those they govern to standards they struggle to keep themselves.

And it’s a place where running fast can be a ticket to escape. Similar running cultures exist in Kenya and Ethiopia, but there they excel over much longer distances. In Jamaica, the top athletes seem to be endowed with a speed gene. And although not everyone can become a Bolt or a Fraser-Pryce, athletic ability can be enough to win a scholarship to an American college — which, for many, can be enough.

Given last year’s spate of positive test results, questions linger about whether the Jamaican sprinters’ success is all that it seems, and down purely to natural talent and honest labour. These doubts threaten to overshadow the nation’s track record for breaking records on the track. Yet as Champs demonstrated, the island is set to continue producing the world’s fastest humans. And to dominate the sprint events at the Olympic Games — if Dennis Johnson is correct — to 2064 and beyond. 

The XX Commonwealth Games take place in Glasgow between 23 July and 3 August; glasgow2014.com

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