Asafa Powell
Asafa Powell Reuters

Jamaica’s sporting community is reeling over reports that two of its biggest track stars tested positive for banned stimulants and drugs in Italy, one month ahead of the World Championships in Moscow. Asafa Powell, once the world record holder for the 100-meter and 200-meter sprints, came up dirty during testing at a track-and-field competition. Indeed, Powell was viewed as the world’s fastest man between 2005 and 2008. Olympic Gold Medalist Sherone Simpson, a top female runner, also tested positive for banned substances. Three other Jamaican athletes were similarly busted.

Powell said he did not dope “knowingly.” “I have never knowingly or willfully taken any supplements or substances that break any rules. My attitude towards doping regulations and testing is well-known and I willingly give samples whenever requested. This result has left me completely devastated in many respects,” Powell said in a statement. “Personally, however, this result comes at a greater cost. I write this statement knowing fully that my family, friends, fans and country will be disappointed at this latest development. I am reeling from this genuinely surprising result.”

Simpson has also expressed her apologies, declaring that this is “a very difficult time for me. ... As an athlete, I know I am responsible for whatever that goes into my body. I am deeply sorry for any hurt or embarrassment this positive test may [have] caused,” according to the Trinidad Express newspaper. Last month, a seven-time Jamaican Olympic medalist in track-and-field, Veronica Campbell-Brown, also failed a drug test. (She denied she cheated, claiming that she took inadvertently took medication that contained a diuretic).

Now, Jamaican sporting authorities are forced to take stock of a changing landscape. "This news really is a shocker with the World Championships less than a month away,” said Jamaican journalist Kayon Raynor, according to the BBC. "Personally I think it rocks the foundation of Jamaica's track and field. … It rocks the foundation of what Jamaica is doing globally. Anyone who tries to deny this is like an ostrich with their head in the sand. The sport has to continue to hold its head up high. It will be interesting to see what the authorities do, what bans will be given out."

In an island country long beset by poverty, high violent crime and murder rates, drug trafficking and political corruption, track-and-field stars provided a fountain of pride and an attractive alternative to those otherwise grim and negative images of Jamaica. With these considerations probably in mind, Jamaica’s leader said she is standing behind the accused athletes. In a speech before Parliament on Tuesday, Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller said her government values the "significant contributions they make toward engendering national pride." But she added that the country’s sportsmen "need to be far more vigilant" about taking drugs which could possibly contain prohibited substances.

However, Simpson-Miller might have forgotten that another prominent Jamaican-born athlete tested positive for drugs a quarter-century ago. Ben Johnson, who immigrated to Canada as a teenager, set a world record in the 100-meter race in the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul and won a gold medal, admitted to using steroids, leading to the disqualification of his records. At the time Johnson and his coach complained that virtually all the top sprinters used drugs and that he had to dope in order to compete.