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.
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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.
Elliott said the crop of five Jamaican athletes have been notified of the positive test results and have been asked if they want a further test to be done. So far, the commission has not heard from anyone, he said, noting that an investigation is ongoing.
“We have stated it more than once that the supplements are not regulated and they should not be taken. They should only take vitamins that are approved,” Elliott told the Miami Herald.
Jamaica, despite its size and huge financial problems, takes anti-doping measures seriously and has instituted “a rigorous program,” Elliott said. The latest development, while not a welcoming one, is proof that the country does test its athletes, he said.
“We are not going to hide anything,” he said.
Still, the development has plunged Jamaica in unfamiliar territory — and how it emerges will depend on how the crisis is managed, observers say.
“You have to admit that it does not at all look good for the brand especially for a country that catapulted ourselves basically into the global limelight,” said Mugisa of the Jamaica Star. “It’s a major worry.”
Olympic medalist and sports analyst Ato Boldon said “it’s up to Jamaica whether Jamaica suffers any long-term damage from all this.”
Still, Boldon concedes that having a top-athlete like Powell be among those facing a ban is a huge blow. Lauded long before Bolt became an international sensation, Powell represents a turning point in Jamaican track and field history, that period when the country went from good to great. He was the last person to hold the men’s 100-meter world record before Usain Bolt broke it in 2008. He also helped Jamaica win Olympic gold that same year in the 4x100-meter relay.
“Prior to Asafa, everybody would have to leave Jamaica for a U.S. university and you went back home to perform for Jamaica. He stayed home,” Boldon said. “The fact that Asafa is homegrown is significant.”
Powell issued a lengthy statement after the news of his positive test, saying he had “never knowingly or willfully taken any supplements or substances that break any rules.” Blame was immediately shifted to Xuereb, who trains both Powell and Simpson.
Boldon, who is Trinidadian, said while he found Powell’s statements “very passionate and very good,” in the end, “everybody in sports knows that you are ultimately responsible for what goes into your body.”