What the Jarrion Lawson Ordeal Taught Us About the Holes in the Global Anti-Doping System
By Jonathan Gault
April 9, 2020
The odds were stacked against Jarrion Lawson.
Lawson, the only man besides Jesse Owens to win the 100 meters, 200 meters, and long jump at the same NCAA championships and the long jump silver medalist at the 2017 World Championships, took a drug test in June 2018 that revealed an Adverse Analytical Finding. That mere fact was essentially a death sentence. The test had been ordered by the Athletics Integrity Unit, World Athletics’ anti-doping arm. Since the AIU’s establishment in April 2017, it had prosecuted over 100 cases of Adverse Analytical Findings. Every single one of them resulted in a sanction.
So it came as no surprise when Lawson’s appeal of the resulting four-year suspension was rejected by an AIU Disciplinary Tribunal in May 2019.
Lawson told the AIU he had ingested the prohibited substance — epitrenbolone, a metabolite of the banned anabolic steroid trenbolone — unknowingly, the result of consuming contaminated beef. Yet that explanation was not enough; for the AIU to overturn the decision, Lawson had to prove “with actual evidence” the “specific source of the allegedly contaminated meat and demonstrate the likelihood that said meat was contaminated.” Despite his best efforts, Lawson could not do that.
Undeterred, Lawson, 25, appealed the AIU’s decision to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which heard his case in New York on November 21. The CAS appeal was a Hail Mary; the CAS panel that heard Lawson’s case admitted when it reached its decision in March.
“In ‘extremely rare’ cases, an athlete might be able to demonstrate a lack of intent even where he/she cannot establish the origin of the prohibited substance,” the CAS decision read, later noting an athlete such as Lawson would have to pass through the “narrowest of corridors” to prove his innocence without establishing the specific source of the prohibited substance.
Yet against all odds, Lawson prevailed. CAS considered the substance in question, trenbolone which is used to promote muscle growth in cattle in the US and other countries, the low concentration of trenbolone in Lawson’s sample (in 2017 middle distance runner Ajee’ Wilson successfully appealed a suspension on the grounds of contaminated meet after it was found she had 8 ng/ml of zeranol in her sample; the concentration in Lawson’s sample was 0.65 ng/mL, or approximately 1/90,000 the weight of a grain of salt per mL), and the steps Lawson had taken to prove his innocence (including a hair test to prove he was not a habitual user and a polygraph test administered by a former FBI chief) and concluded he was innocent. On March 6, Jarrion Lawson was cleared to compete, effective immediately.
“Common sense must count strongly,” the CAS decision read, “against it being a mere coincidence that he tested positive, for such a tiny amount of a dangerous and illegal prohibited substance as to be undetectable in his hair, and for no rational benefit, so soon after having eaten beef from hormone-treated cattle.”
Lawson was relieved to have the case settled in his favor. He doesn’t blame the restaurant for the contaminated beef — “we don’t know what’s going on in the meat industry” — and isn’t dwelling on missed earnings or competition opportunities.
“Anything that I may have missed out on, I think I will get everything that’s supposed to come my way,” Lawson says.
But Lawson isn’t completely ready to move on. The costs he was forced to pay — tens of thousands in legal fees, a hit to his reputation, and a year and a half of his prime — were severe; the next athlete in his situation might not be willing (or able) to pay them. He believes there are major flaws in the doping control process that need to be remedied. Perhaps the biggest:
Why did it take almost two years and tens of thousands of dollars for a clean athlete to prove his innocence?
There are a multitude of answers to the question above. Some deal with Lawson’s case specifically, others with the global anti-doping system as a whole. Let’s begin by addressing the former.
The first issue? It took 62 days for Lawson to learn about his positive test (he was tested on June 2 and the sample was analyzed on June 14; Lawson was not informed of the positive test until August 3). While’s it’s not certain Lawson would have been able to provide specific proof the meat he ate was contaminated had he learned of the positive test earlier, the AIU’s tardiness — which CAS referred to as an “inexcusable failure” — essentially eliminated that option.
In an email to LetsRun.com, an AIU spokesman explained the reasoning for the delay:
Every adverse analytical finding must go through a series of initial reviews prior to notification to the athlete that includes 1) checking for existing TUEs (therapeutic use exemptions), 2) checking for any departures from the International Standard for Laboratories, 3) checking for any departures from the International Standard for Testing and Investigations and 4) determining jurisdiction for results management under the applicable rules.
On this occasion the initial review took longer than usual because the relevant sample was collected on AIU instructions by USADA. As the Adverse Analytical Finding arose from a sample taken by USADA from a US athlete on US soil an internal decision had to be made whether USADA or the AIU should have jurisdiction over the case.
Another problem specific to Lawson’s case was the testimony of Professor Christiane Ayotte, director of the WADA-accredited doping control lab at the Institut National de la Recherche Scientifique in Laval, Quebec. Ayotte was called by the AIU as an expert witness in Lawson’s AIU appeal. She testified that in recent years, positive tests for trenbolone in her lab had always featured low concentrations of the substance, making it impossible to separate intentional cheaters from those who had ingested contaminated meat.
Lawson’s team requested records from Ayotte’s lab to confirm these claims; the lab denied the records, forcing Lawson’s team to appeal to CAS to compel the lab to turn them over.
The actual records revealed Ayotte’s claim was not accurate. The CAS panel noted some of the levels measured “were large” and that 18 of the 21 positive tests for trenbolone since 2013 contained higher concentrations than Lawson’s .65 ng/mL. Lawson’s agent, Paul Doyle, told LetsRun.com the average concentration was 208 times higher.
At the same time, the panel noted many of the samples for athletes in America in 2018 and 2019 did feature low concentrations (2 ng/mL or below). It was, it seemed, possible for trenbolone to cause inadvertent positives.
While the CAS panel said it was not “entirely persuaded” by Ayotte’s testimony, Doyle went much further.
“Christiane Ayotte should be fired from her job and never be able to testify as an expert witness ever again,” says Doyle.
When reached for comment by LetsRun.com, Ayotte wrote in a statement that she believed her evidence was correct when she gave it.
“I have always been respectful of arbitral decisions and I will in this case as well,” Ayotte told LetsRun.com. “I have not done anything to Mr Lawson. As it is my duty, I have acted as a neutral expert and provided evidence that I believe to be accurate and true. If the panel concluded that the athlete did not [take] trenbolone voluntarily, I respect the decision…I of course, disagree with Mr. Doyle’s characterization of my evidence but I have no desire to argue with him.”
In the months between Lawson’s AIU and CAS appeals, Paul Doyle couldn’t sleep. He’d lie awake, the clock ticking past 2:00, then 3:00 a.m., pulling up the eight-hour audio recording of Lawson’s rejected AIU appeal, trying to determine where things went wrong.
Doyle sleeps a lot better these days, but the agita remains; it’s morphed from frustration on behalf of his athlete to anger at a system that failed him for so long.
“He’s essentially lost two years of his career,” Doyle says. “That’s 20% of an athlete’s career. That’s just been taken from him, and the guy did nothing wrong. So somebody needs to pay.”
To that end, Doyle says they are planning on suing the AIU, WADA, and Ayotte. But should those lawsuits proceed, they would be about more than simply making Jarrion Lawson whole. Doyle represents dozens of athletes, including Olympic medalists Andre De Grasse, Clayton Murphy, and Sandi Morris, and doesn’t want them — or any clean athlete — to have to deal with what Lawson endured.
“I think that’s probably the only way to get them to change, is to hit them in their pocketbooks,” Doyle says.
According to its website, the AIU’s role is “to drive cheats out of our sport, and to do everything within its power to support honest athletes around the world.”
No one would argue this is an easy task. Even if a cheater is caught, they will often do exactly what a clean athlete would: deny the charge.
Separating made-up excuses from genuine ones can be difficult. But in Lawson’s case, Doyle believes the AIU did not even make an effort. He says they were concerned only with driving cheats out — busting an American World Championship medalist would send a serious message — and not with the second part of their job, supporting honest athletes.
“I truly believe that the AIU, from Day 1, believed Jarrion Lawson was innocent,” Doyle says. “They are so gung-ho to try and catch what they want to classify as cheaters so that the perception is that they’re doing a good job that they’ll not even care that an athlete is innocent…The AIU, I’m sure, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to convict an innocent athlete rather than putting that money into research.”
The AIU disputes this. In an email to LetsRun.com, an AIU spokesman wrote:
We do of course rely upon WADA to put in place the regulatory framework that strikes the balance [between pursuing cheats and protecting clean athletes]. We must comply fully with that regulatory framework, and we enforce the Code vigorously and consistently against all International-Level Athletes and support personnel…
The AIU accepts the finding of the Appeal Panel in this case, but it is misleading to imply that this outcome was an obvious one from the outset. Trenbolone is a well-known and currently used doping substance. According to the agreed position of the experts on both sides of the case, the theory of how trenbolone used in the farming of cattle could end up contaminating the athlete’s sample was far from straight forward, indeed (according to the athlete’s expert) involved a ‘lightning strike’ of circumstances. Given the state of the factual and expert evidence, it was appropriate that this case be put forward for determination by a hearing panel.
The AIU spokesman also noted, twice, how Lawson’s case was the first Adverse Analytical Finding case — in over a hundred it had brought — not to result in a doping sanction. The AIU used this fact to defend the time, energy, and resources it used to pursue a sanction against Lawson. Doyle believes it’s that exact logic that is so problematic. Was the AIU’s 100% conviction rate proof it is great at catching cheaters? Or that it was too difficult for genuinely clean athletes to successfully appeal?
One point on which the AIU and Doyle agree: Lawson produced an Adverse Analytical Finding. And that raises another issue. Namely: should a low-concentration positive test for a substance commonly used in the beef industry be treated the same as a high-concentration positive test for an obvious performance-enhancer such as EPO? Under the current WADA rules, they are.
WADA has taken one step toward changing those rules — last year, it ruled that low-level positives for clenbuterol, a substance common in contaminated meat cases, trigger an investigation rather than an immediate anti-doping rule violation — but Doyle believes it must go further.
“WADA knows this stuff happens,” Doyle says. “They know meat can be contaminated, they know athletes can test positive, yet they still set the rules in such a way that it makes it almost impossible for an athlete to show that.”
But it’s not just WADA setting a high bar; the fact that AIU, not USADA, had jurisdiction in Lawson’s case was key. In the last three years, two other American World Championship medalists — Wilson and long/triple jumper Will Claye in 2018 — tested positive for similar substances (zeranol and clenbuterol, respectively) but were cleared after USADA agreed with the athletes’ explanations of contaminated meat.
A key difference between AIU and USADA? AIU required a much higher burden of proof from Lawson — “actual evidence” of the source of the contaminated meat. Lawson’s AIU appeal failed, in large part, because he could not provide that proof. In its ruling, the CAS panel underlined — literally — how difficult Lawson’s task was:
“The Panel considers that it is effectively impossible in the present case for the Athlete to adduce the sort of ‘actual evidence‘ required by the Disciplinary Tribunal to prove the origin of the substance found in his system.”
Again, it comes down to that delicate balance between vigorously prosecuting genuine cheats and protecting clean athletes. Doyle believes Lawson’s case proves the balance is currently skewed too far in one direction.
“The AIU is set up to support clean athletes,” Doyle says. “WADA is set up to support clean athletes, level the playing field. They all need to focus on that, not just try and catch cheats. They need to make sure they’re protecting clean athletes, and in my opinion, they are grossly failing.”
Within the elite jumps world, Lawson’s reputation is largely undamaged. Many of his competitors know the details of his story and believe his explanation, and for Lawson, that is enough.
“As long as the people around me and in my circle know me for me, that’s good for me,” Lawson says.
But Lawson’s ordeal has caused other damage not so easily repaired. The hit to his wallet was severe. CAS ruled World Athletics had to pay Lawson 10,000 Swiss francs — roughly $10,300 — but that covers only a fraction of his legal costs, not to mention his lost earning opportunities. Lawson’s sponsor, Asics, has been supportive throughout, and Doyle says they will resume Lawson’s contract, which had been suspended while he was ineligible to compete (it remains unclear whether he will be paid for the period during which he was suspended). But when Asics launched its 2020 marketing campaign during the US Olympic Marathon Trials in February, Lawson, the company’s only medalist, wasn’t part of it.
“The layperson or the people that don’t know Jarrion, I’m sure most of them will still think of him as a cheater,” Doyle says. “Even though he’s been completely cleared by CAS and the IAAF has had to pay costs to him as well, it’s still not going to convince people. And that’s the really unfortunate part. Because this damage that’s been done, it’s not reversible. Never fully.”
For Lawson, the most painful blow was being unable to compete. He trained, day after day, in his base in Knoxville, Tenn., not knowing when he would be able to demonstrate the fruit of his labors. Even watching a track meet on television hurt — a reminder of what, exactly, he was missing out on.
When his AIU appeal was denied in May 2019, Lawson stopped training for two weeks, too depressed to continue — “everything was just kind of disgusting to me, whether that be encouraging words or any type of motivational words, the track, the weight room.” But eventually, Lawson says, God came to him and “woke up my spirit.” He resumed training. By March 2020, Lawson felt he was in the best shape of his life.
Which created a cruel irony. Now that Lawson is finally able to compete, there are no competitions: the global track & field calendar, like the rest of society, is currently at the whim of the coronavirus. But Lawson believes one day, he will have the opportunity to stand on a podium again. And when he does, rather than dwell on what he’s missed out on over the past two years, he will choose to focus on how he has grown, spiritually, emotionally, and physically.
“I’m not mad, I’m not sad, I’m just really excited for what’s ahead of me, which is the opportunity to get back on the track, make an Olympic team, go for an Olympic gold medal.”
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