Friday, October 15, 2010

Two Insults And A Pile Of Medals

Two insults and a pile of medals

In September 2000, a day after Australian athlete Cathy Freeman (an Aborigine) won the women’s 400 metres race at the Sydney Olympic Games, Australia’s national newspaper – The Australian – screamed on its front page: “Catherine the Great”. The Sydney Morning Herald, another Australian newspaper, toasted Freeman’s victory in its front-page headline cast in bold typeface: “Pride of the land”. In a similar tone, Brisbane’s only daily newspaper, The Courier-Mail, proclaimed rather triumphantly: “The Olympian”.

In light of the scandals over positive drug tests recorded by two Nigerian athletes at the Commonwealth Games in Delhi, do we have the moral right to celebrate in a similar manner the noble achievements of our own sportspeople now tarnished by the ignoble conduct of two athletes at the Games? The 2010 Commonwealth Games has produced mixed outcomes for Nigeria. The latest sporting disgrace constitutes a sad end to what arguably could have been described as Nigeria’s best performance in any Commonwealth Games. In 2006, Nigeria won a total of 17 medals. As at the time of writing this article, Nigeria had doubled that effort by winning a total of 33 medals: 10 gold, 10 silver and 13 bronze.

By a stroke of evil coincidence or deliberate mischief, two athletes of contrasting reputations have brought shame and international condemnation to their country and their fellow sportsmen and women. As the only two athletes so far to test positive for the banned stimulant – methylhexaneamine (an energy boosting drug) -- the Nigerian athletes have tarred their names and their country’s name with the brush of infamy, scandal, and a perpetually damaged reputation, if at all they had any before they attended the games.

When news broke that Damola Osayemi had tested positive for a banned stimulant, the Nigerian camp rose to her defence, claiming she took a prescription medicine for a troublesome tooth. Osayemi was first suspended from further participation following the positive result of her “A” sample. As soon as the result of the “B” sample was confirmed to be positive, the Commonwealth Games organisers immediately stripped her of the gold medal she won in the women’s 100 metres race in controversial circumstances.

The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) reported on its online site that the president of Nigeria’s Athletics Federation, Solomon Ogba, claimed Osayemi was given prescription medicine to fight a toothache. “She took medication for her toothache and we strongly suspect that it was that, which led to her failed drug test,” Ogba was quoted as saying. The BBC also reported that no fewer than 11 Indian sportspeople had, prior to the start of the Games, tested positive for the same stimulant last month. “Methylhexaneamine is the same drug several Indian athletes…, were found to have used in September.”

While this might be the case, it is not a valid ground on which anyone could defend Osayemi’s behaviour or the conduct of her colleague, Samuel Okon, a hurdler who also tested positive for the same stimulant and has been disqualified from participation in the games. As professional athletes, Osayemi and Okon ought to know what drugs were on the prohibition list. Their trainers and indeed Nigerian athletics officials have an obligation to inform all athletes about banned drugs. Now, the damage has been done and sadly all medal winners in the Nigerian team are being depicted in the Western news media as possible cheats who got away because they were not caught.

It’s amazing how popular sportsmen and women construct unbelievable stories to mask unlawful conduct, to avoid punishment, and to evade reprimand by the public. I have heard sportsmen and women who were embroiled in scandal over drugs and alcohol say unbelievable things such as: “My mum gave me the anti-cold and flu medication but I didn’t know it contained some banned stimulants.” What about this? “Oh, I wasn’t aware the drug was in my pocket. My mum mistakenly left it there when she washed my clothes”.

In the history of cheating in international sports, many excuses seem authentic but highly improbable. How can experienced and professional sportsmen and women claim ignorance of the contents of the medication, food or drinks they take before or during major sports events? These guys are always in denial, even after their deceptive conduct has been exposed. Consider the outlandish conspiracy theory advanced by Canadian athlete Ben Johnson after he was found to have been propelled by drugs to win the men’s 100 metres race at the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games.

When Ben Johnson crossed the finish line in a world record time of 9.79 seconds as the winner of the much anticipated race between him and Carl Lewis, his United States’ sprint rival, in September 1988, Johnson had no idea what awaited him. It was the doping test result that shattered Johnson’s invincibility. He failed the drug test and was immediately disqualified and stripped of his gold medal.

Soon after the positive test result emerged, Johnson told journalists it was all an American conspiracy. His mother and father tended to agree with him. As Jeff Powell of the UK’s Daily Mail online reported, Johnson said: “The Americans can’t allow themselves to come second. That’s their mentality and I’d beaten Carl three times on the run-up to the Games. So they spiked my drink with enough stuff to kill a cow. Unlucky to test positive? I was lucky to get out of Seoul alive.” Jeff Powell also reported that, “Later that day Johnson dialled his mother, who told him: “Just come home, Ben. They could have murdered you.”

In the past decades, Nigeria’s participation in international sports has been smeared with scandals of sorts involving sexual harassments or gratifications, illegal withholding or misappropriation of foreign exchange allowances meant for feeding, transportation and sustenance of sportsmen and women, improper training and selection of athletes, and the inclusion of a large number of sports administrators as members of Nigeria’s official delegation to international sports events. These are just a handful of the numerous and accumulated acts of inappropriate behaviour involving Nigerian sports officials, as well as sportsmen and women.

Let’s be clear here. Nigeria is not the only country whose athletes have been caught cheating in international sports competitions. Countries such as the United States, Canada, Britain, China (the much chastised swim team), Russia, Australia and France, to mention just a few, have had to contend with problems with their own sportsmen and women. If Canada’s high achievements in sports have been tarnished by the Ben Johnson scandal, the UK has also suffered from its own nightmares (e.g. Dwain Chambers), just as the United States has had its image discredited repeatedly by scandals involving athletes such as Marion Jones, Justin Gatlin and Tim Montgomery.

There is one manifest lesson to be learnt from all these persistent cases of sportspeople taking performance enhancing drugs in order to excel in international competitions. Despite strict testing rules set up by national sports federations, criminally minded athletes who want to cheat will always make an attempt on the assumption that they won’t be caught. It is doubtful whether testing at the national or international level would ever eliminate or reduce the incidence of cheating in sports. It doesn’t look like it would happen in our generation.

The increasing involvement of Nigerian sports officials, sportsmen and women in shameful behaviour at major international sports events has now reached epidemic proportion. It suggests that Nigerian leaders are not the only ones who are guilty of damaging the country’s international image. As the scandal in Delhi has shown, sports people and indeed other classes of Nigerians have also been doing their best to trivialise the positive achievements of other hardworking citizens.

If you subscribe to the notion that things have to get really bad in Nigeria before they get better, you may wonder whether Nigeria has not yet reached the zenith of bad behaviour from where the citizens could start to mend their ways. Since independence, Nigeria has been going through testing circumstances, something akin to a crucible. The country has fallen into economic and political cesspit. As economic hardships bite harder, as crime and political violence surge, many citizens now seek illegal pathways to solve their problems. It looks like we are all struggling to beat a rush hour deadline to achieve notoriety for ourselves and our country. At times like these, you wish you were not a Nigerian.



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