A DOSE OF REALITY

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Enefiok Udo-Obong

GOLDMINE By Enefiok Udo-Obong

Doping is one of two major vices that threatens the integrity of sports (the other being match fixing) and the fight against doping has been resolute. Internationally there has been major legal and administrative changes to combat this problem. Nigeria on its part has had its fair share of doping issues and this problem came to the limelight in the recent “Christmas Judgement” on a high profile case in the courts.

Lee Evans, an American Track and Field hero (former World record Holder in the 400m and 1968 Olympic Gold Medalist) and one of the greatest athletes of all time was given a four-year ban from the sports where is had been a top coach in Nigeria for allegedly given an athlete banned substances in order to improve performance. It was reported that during a hearing on the case organized by the Athletics Federation of Nigeria, he accepted giving the athlete a nutritional supplements while coaching her. Evans won two golds at the 1968 Mexico City Games, where he and fellow athletes wore berets on the podium in support of the Black Power movement. He had a history of coaching in the U.S. and Africa.

However, insisting on his innocence, Lee Evans took to the courts to contest his ban. After six gruesome years of legal battle, the Honourable Justice A.O Faji made his landmark Christmas Ruling on the 21st of December 2020 in what may be the beginning of great ramifications in our nation’s fight against doping.

The 73-year old coach had pleaded the court that: the WADA code being an international treaty not domesticated in Nigeria law was illegal and thus cannot be used by anybody or government institution, that the ban was a way to humiliate and deny him his rights of dignity, that the Federation just wanted to ridicule him and tarnish his internationally acclaimed image. The American also claimed his hearing was not free and fair and denied him his rights to work. He prayed the court to quash the sanctions and sued for a total of N94million being loss of earnings and legal fees during the four year period.

The defendants, in this case, the Ministry of Sports, The Athletics Federation of Nigeria and Dr (now Prof) Ken Anugweje (who was the head of the AFN anti-doping committee at the time) had through their lawyers argued that the court did not have the jurisdiction to hear the case as the plaintiff (Lee Evans) has not exhausted all avenues of dispute resolution as required by his Sports. He could have appealed the decision to the Appeals panel of the federation, then the International Federation and then the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS). But he never explored these options. They made a case that Lee Evans was bound by the WADA code as he was contracted to bodies that were signatories to the code. They also argued that since the American was not a doctor he had no right to administer any substance to the athlete and that since the athlete was a minor, she trusted him blindly.

Three critical issues were raised in the case. First, did the court have jurisdiction over the matter or was the plaintiff to seek other avenues of resolution first? Second issue was on the validity of the WADA code on the case and finally, did the plaintiff get a fair hearing?

On the first issue, the Honourable Justice Faji rules that the defence did not make specific citations on the relevant Anti-doping rules and also noted that since the rules were not statute, the defendants had to show and plead them. He ruled in favour of the Plaintiff.

The second issue was whether the WADA code applied to the case. Having examined the arguments of both parties, adjudged that the WADA code applied to the case. The issue on whether the plaintiff had a fair hearing was a different matter. The AFN was more or less accused of being judge and jury as the lead doping control officer who collected the urine samples from the erring athlete was also a member of the hearing committee that found the coach (Evans) guilty. The Justice also noted that their conclusions were speculative as they had no idea what was in the supplements the coach under oath said he gave the athlete as it was not tested. He also observed that the committee also did not make any definitive findings of wrong doing against Mr. Lee Evans. He then ruled in favour of the septuagenarian.

However, the judgement leaves a lot to be determined as the judge awarded Lee Evans the sum of N46 million as damages due to loss of income for the four years he was suspended (based on N960,000 monthly salary he was earning as a contract staff of the Lagos State Sports Council at the time), in addition to another N350,000 as legal fees. But in the same judgement, Faji agreed that the coach was subject to anti-doping code and punishments. His conclusions of the “Not Guilty” verdict actually comes from the technicality of the coach not being given a fair hearing.

While we may not have heard the last of this case as the Ministry may appeal the judgement, it is an eye opener to Nigeria as we battle the scourge of drug abuse and doping in our sports. We need to get all legislative and regulatory acts done quickly and straighten out all administrative processes. Drug use is a reality in our sports. Drugs are abused in high doses but this case gives our administrator a dose of reality in checkmating this menace.