Jamaica is known as the isle of speed for its assembly line of world-class sprinters.
But now, the island-nation that has dominated the world track stage in recent years with its seemingly never-ending farm system of speedsters, finds itself under an unprecedented haze of scrutiny.
Less than a month before the track and field World Championships in Moscow, a doping scandal is threatening to taint the Jamaica brand, giving fresh ammunition to those who have long suspected its athletes of using performance-enhancing drugs.
“There is just disbelief. People are not willing to believe it,” said Kwesi Mugisa, sports editor at the Jamaica Star in Kingston.
In the past weeks, two prominent sprinters — three-time Olympic gold medalist and reigning 200-meter world champion Veronica Campbell-Brown and former 100-meters world record holder Asafa Powell have tested positive for banned substances. Veteran sprinter and Olympic relay gold medalist Sherone Simpson and discus thrower Allison Randall also tested positive as have two other unnamed athletes.
If there is any consolation for the Jamaicans, their biggest star, six-time Olympic gold medalist and five-time world champion Usain Bolt, has not tested positive and reiterated last week that he’s clean and is willing to be tested anytime. But the world’s fastest man is being sullied by association.
“We are behind our athletes 110 percent,” said Kadiane Johnston, 29, of Montego Bay. “It’s a setup. So maybe you will soon hear them say that Usain took [something]. It’s just messed up right now.”
On Tuesday, Jamaican leaders appealed to the nation, urging Jamaicans “not to lose faith in the genuine talent and spirit of our athletes.”
“Sometimes we beat ourselves up,” Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller said in parliament after announcing her government’s intention to boost anti-doping initiatives, including introducing a high school-level testing program.
“Successive generations have made a valuable contribution. No matter what the challenge, let’s hold our head high,” she said. “We are Jamaicans.”
The scandal is nevertheless worrying for a nation whose athletes have become an important part of its nation branding, and a symbol of what it can accomplish despite its small size. But with increased success has come increased scrutiny. While some explained its explosive success at the Olympics to a “speed gene” and a home-grown yam diet, others have accused its athletes of cheating — not unlike other nations including the United States, which has endured several doping scandals among its top athletes.
On Monday, Italian authorities raided the Jamaica team hotel in Lignano Sabbiadoro in northeastern Italy amid the news that Powell and Simpson had tested positive for the stimulant oxilofrine. Italy, which has among the most stringent doping laws, immediately launched an investigation.
The Associated Press reported that police searched the rooms of the athletes and physical trainer Christopher Xuereb of Canada and confiscated drugs and muscle supplement, although it is not clear if any were illegal.
The most recent batch of positive tests were taken at last month’s Jamaican championships. None of the Jamaican athletes’ Olympic medals or even that of American 100-meter record holder Tyson Gay, who also revealed this week that he too had failed a drug test, are at risk, said Dr. Herb Elliott, chairman of the Jamaica Anti-Doping Commission.