THAT the second testing of his urine sample might clear Manju Wanniarachchi of any wrongdoing and so restore his Commonwealth Games gold medal is pretty much a hope that rides on the wings of a prayer. The truth though is, hardly ever does the result of a second examination (for banned substance in the system of an athlete) differ from that of the first – and any hope that it would is, well, to rely on miracles.
It would be lovely if a miracle works for Wanniarachchi and Sri Lanka boxing, but then residing in a make-believe world does the sport no good. It’s so best to accept the gold won a fortnight ago, the first since 1938, is rightfully not ours, and work on how best to come out of this crisis less scathed and get the sport back on road. Let’s not pretend Wanniarachchi’s crime, even if inadvertent, isn’t grave; it is.
Reportedly, the initial reaction of the boxer and ABA officials was one of shock and disbelief. As much as we would like to think that sort of reaction reflects innocence, meaning the boxer was unaware that a banned drug was administered on him, well, that is standard first reaction of any athlete testing positive, Ben Johnson, Marion Jones down.
AIBA and the outside world, however, see the issue strictly in black ‘n white: the official medical report says the boxer had taken the banned drug, Nandrolone, and so must pay the penalty prescribed by law – should the second test too show up positive. Case closed. Hence it’s fairly certain that Wanniarachchi’s fate is as good as written; he and his gold will be parted. To put it so bluntly is not to cast aspersions on Wanniarachchi’s integrity or infer that he knowingly indulged in the forbidden drug so as to gain unfair advantage over his opponents. His eleven years in international boxing, after all, has been as clean as a whistle, untainted by controversy of any sort. “In his eleven years of international boxing, he hasn’t lost on a disqualification, which says much about his law-abiding ways. So, Manju knowingly indulging in drugs is unthinkable,’’ says Lt. Col. (retd) Hemantha Weerasinghe, ABA Secretary.
Emerging evidence suggests a consonance with the boxer’s unblemished past. If anything evidence infers that it’s the boxer’s naivety that might’ve got him into this trouble. As most athletes do, Wanniarachchi too had a doctor of his choosing to place implicit faith in and leave his health entirely in the hands of that doctor. It turns out that the doctor, allegedly, under the guise of injecting vitamins, had shot doses of Nandrolone into the boxer.
As well, unraveling evidence cast doubt on the doctor’s claimed – and advertised – qualifications. “At one stage of the (Police) investigation, he said he was doctor of homeopathy, but the association of the practitioners of homeopathic medicine disowns him,’’ said an ABA official. “There’s reason to assume the doctor was trespassing into areas of work that he wasn’t entitled to enter.’’
With the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to suggest that the boxer ought to have chosen as consultant a doctor specialized in sport medicine than a GP – or, on having been treated by the latter, sought a second opinion from a specialist of the Sport Ministry medical unit. But it is understandable why the boxer chose to deal only with the Kurunegala-based doctor. Apart from the fact that he was easily reachable, from the Pannala training centre, the doctor came highly recommended. He had treated, and cured, a host of top sportsmen, especially rugby stars from Kandy; his list of patients also includes popular film stars and politicians.
“Manju admits that he would worship the doctor before and after each consultation – his faith and respect for the doctor ran so deep,’’ said a boxing official assisting in the investigations. “As far as the ABA is concerned, Manju has been a victim of his own innocence.’’ The trouble, though, is that his naivety won’t free him of the crime. So, as said before, it’s best to accept the gold was never won – and, rather, make a case for sparing Wanniarachchi of the two-year ban that accompanies the confiscation of the medal. The findings of the investigation by the Kurunegala Police will be crucial in his appeal for pardon. The investigation, according to sources, has established that the boxer was injected with the banned drug, but the probe is less certain if the boxer connived with the doctor.
Still, there’s enough evidence from the investigation to make a case for mitigating the penalty. In appeals like this, the national body’s relationship with AIBA would be helpful, and here the ABA is fortunate that three of its officials play useful roles in the world body – Dian Gomes as Director of AIBA’s Marketing Committee and Herbert and Nivea Embuldeniya as respected senior officials on AIBA’s International Referees and Judges Committee. This is not to say that the AIBA can be influenced, but the contributions made by the Sri Lankans to the management of international boxing is not likely to be lost on those AIBA officials adjudicating ABA’s appeal, nor that we’re some anonymous Third World country trying to pull the wool over the world body’s eyes.
The ABA has no option but to make an earnest bid to save Wanniarachchi of the two-year ban. Failure would mean, the boxer is disqualified from the 2012 Olympics too – and that would be the unkindest cut of all. Notwithstanding his breaching of the rules, the 31-year old unquestionably looks the best bet to bring Sri Lanka her first ever Olympic boxing medal. Domestically, there’s no bantam weight around to rival him, borne out by his ten-year undefeated run. His 11 years experience in international boxing is unmatched, and his silver in the Commonwealth Championships last March and the gold six months later in the Delhi Games is a sign of the dawning of his career’s harvest time.
Critics, of course, will ask why he didn’t manage the successes earlier in his career, and question why the year of his most outstanding successes coincide with the year in which he failed a drug test. That argument is uncontestable in so far as determining if the boxer is guilty or not of the “crime’’– but we’re talking here of an appeal for his pardon, should a second testing this week confirm, as it likely will, the result of the first. Those critics of Wanniarachchi have to be reminded that it was failure that inspired some of the champion’s most stirring performances.
Three years ago, a string of disappointing performances led to his omission from the national team for the dual vs. Tanzania. His younger replacement was beaten, forcing the veteran’s re-inclusion for the second contest against the Tanzanians. Here, Wanniarachchi let loose all of his pent up fury caused by rejection on the hapless Tanzanian, forcing the referee to intervene and stop the slaughter. His year of most outstanding successes too has its origin in failure: the surrender, in 2009, of his invincible record in local boxing to P D Suresh. The defeat cost him a place in the national team bound for the Asian Championship, signaling what many thought was the end of his career. You know his answer. The present crisis could well again turn him into a coiled package of venom, obsessed with recouping his lost gold with an Olympic medal, the basest texture of which would be far more valuable than the Commonwealth’s finest metal – to the boxer and Sri Lanka boxing. This is all the more reason why the ABA must present a convincing case for his pardon.