Botswana’s latest doping saga

Joe-Brown Tlhaselo
Saturday, 09 January 2016
Tuelo Serufho, kago Ramoroka, Andrew Kamanga Tuelo Serufho, kago Ramoroka, Andrew Kamanga

It gets even scarier with insinuations already abound that perhaps the entire rugby sevens team that played at the Rio Olympic Games qualifiers in South Africa two months ago may be guilty of the performance-enhancing  transgression.

Only two Botswana team players out of the eleven were randomly picked for the doping test, and both failed it. Such a return could be indicative of something worse – that had all the players been subjected to the test, they might have all failed it.

It would not be a strange occurance in the continent’s rugby sevens. In 2014, the Kenyan rugby sevens team was caught up in a similar scandal, with the blame eventually shifted to the coaching staff as the entire team was found with a banned substance.

Yet Kenya, like Botswana, have in their midst national doping agencies that also run educational programmes for athletes and officials. Questions then arise relating to the efficiency of Botswana’s anti-doping campaigns.

Could this signal some porosity in the country’s anti-doping control instruments, or it could just be a case of overzealous athletes so desperate to impress that they deliberately connive to cheat the systems in place? One also wonders if the country’s national anti-doping organization is adequately-equipped and well-resourced to cope with emerging doping complications that have now become a global concern.

The local sporting authorities need to look into this latest scandalous matter even more seriously, for it could leave the country with an egg on the face. Two athletes testing positive out of just a few, and at just one testing session in the same competition, is one too many for an emerging sporting force such as Botswana - especially with such a negligible population.

The recent doping scandals involving the Botswana athletics duo of Amantle Montsho and Onalenna Baloyi surfaced at a time when educational programmes on doping had long been running. Yet, even with the evidence of the tragedy that befell the two athletes, the country can still have its national team stars caught up in doping transgressions.

Besides, towards the end of last year, the infamous Russian doping scandal attracted such global attention that even the local athletes should have known better than to open everyone to such national embarrassment.

Perhaps the time is now that government must step up efforts to help strengthen the national anti-doping control measures than to wait for more scandals to emerge. The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), through the World Anti-Doping Code (The Code), recommends that each country establishes a fully-fledged and autonomous national anti-doping organization (NADO), something that Botswana is yet to have.

What the country has is an arm of the Botswana National Olympic Committee (BNOC) and with the lack of autonomy, it can be open to influence from the very same authorities that are the custodians of the athletes.

Perhaps this is where there might be loopholes that tomorrow could make the sporting world suspicious of the country’s testing standards. The tests that were failed by the four Botswana athletes – the two rugby players, Montsho and Baloyi – were conducted at international competitions away from Gaborone.

In 2015 alone, the non-autonomous NADO in question conducted a total of 45 doping tests on Botswana athletes – 5 tests during competitions and 40 out of competition – and none of them returned adverse results. It is thus easy to suspect that the country’s instruments are not up to standard, which can be improved when government, through an Act of parliament, expedites the setting up of an autonomous body.

Regional Manager at the Africa Zone VI Regional Anti-Doping Organisation (RADO) Andrew Kamanga’s argument on the matter suggests that perhaps it is the athletes and their immediate handlers who are irresponsible on these doping issues. He posits that the testing standards used in Botswana return as accurate results as any other in the world.

“Doping Control Testing is standardized in accordance with the World Anti-Doping Code and the International Standard for Testing and Investigations (ISTI). This means that the same methods and protocols are followed world-wide by Doping Control Officers (DCOs) in testing athletes,” he told BG Sports this week. He added that the country has five active and trained DCOs who have been testing for the past six years. “Their work has resulted in some drug cheats being caught at various competitions held in Botswana. The DCOs have also been accorded opportunities to test at the African Games as well as at the  African Union Sports Council (AUSC) Region 5 Youth Games,” he said.

BNOC CEO Tuelo Serufho confirmed that the local NADO was operating under his organization, and conceded that despite doing a good job, the set up was not ideal. He too expressed satisfaction with the work of the local testing officers, saying their efficiency is exemplified by the international athletes who were tested in Botswana and had to be banned after returning adverse results. “From tests conducted in Botswana, a South African driver who came third at the 2013 Kalahari 1000 Desert Race tested positive and was eventually banned. A Kenyan who won the Gaborone Marathon in recent years was also stripped of his medal and prize money after testing positive,” Serufho told BG Sport.

Both Serufho and Kamanga however, agree on the need to have a more potent NADO through the help of government. Kamanga said: “The establishment of a fully-fledged National Anti-Doping Organisation will be a welcome development provided the necessary resources can be mobilized. However, at this juncture, priority should be given to intensifying education and awareness efforts as well as upscaling testing at major national sporting events.

There is need for Botswana to improve its out-of-competition testing program under the WADA Testing Grant in order to take advantage of available resources from WADA.” Serufho too, reiterated the need to have an autonomous NADO to render even more efficient services. “The setting of a standalone NADO is quite urgent. Not only should this structure have independence, it should be sufficiently resourced such that it is empowered to deliver robust education programmes as well as extensive test both in and out of competition. Efforts of the NADO would be complemented by RADO which has been lending support to the current NADO under BNOC,” he said.

He agreed that government’s expedited establishment of the an independent NADO would rid the BNOC of conflict of interest – that of being athletes’ custodians and the doping prosecuting authority at the same time. BG Sport has established that in the past, both Botswana Government and the BNOC had made considerable progress towards the establishment of NADO, but that the economic downturn put a halt to the matter as government prioritized on urgent national projects. But Serufho believes that the time is ripe for the matter to be revisited.

“Our economy has been on the recovery path for a few years, and doping is becoming an even greater threat to sport and our athletes. The time is now opportune for a NADO to be established.
There is also need for supporting legislation on anti doping and other vices such as match-fixing and illegal betting,” the BNOC CEO told BG Sport.

Acting  Permanent Secretary in the sports ministry Kago Ramokate made an assurance that government’s commitment to the establishment of an autonomous NADO was still alive. “It is a principle the ministry has taken seriously. It is just that at some point we faced difficulty of resources to get it fully-funded. We do appreciate the fact that the current status of NADO under the BNOC may not give the desired results, hence our undertaking to establish a fully-fledged one. Our commitment is shown by our hosting of RADO activities and attending WADA board activities. We thus cannot afford to ignore the need for a local body,” Ramokate said.

He however could not put a time frame on when they expect the organization to be set up, saying it is work in progress. He also expressed disappointment at the failed doping tests by the rugby players, saying a lot is being done to educate all concerned sportspersons on doping. “Perhaps we should wait a little more as we do not know how they got the banned substances in their system.
But the growing numbers of our athletes testing positive are worrisome and they show that that more has to be done. We may have to change strategies for teams going out for competitions and strengthen our education programmes,” he added.

Meanwhile, the case against Botswana’s pair of rugby players who tested positive is now being handled by the World Rugby Union who will only give a ruling once the process is concluded. At the moment the players remain provisionally suspended from organized rugby until the case is concluded.

It is also possible that the entire team, including the travelling officials, may face disciplinary action. The implications themselves are too big to ignore. It is not just the local rugby teams that will be viewed with suspicion by their competitors in future, other athletes across the sporting divide may suffer prejudice as well. After all it is not the first time a Botswana sportsperson has tested positive for banned substances.

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