Saturday, September 26, 2020

After the storm

For Onalenna Baloi, the oracle was the man at the cattle-post.

“I was spending time at the cattle-post after Standard Seven examinations,” Baloi recalls, “and there was a news item on the radio about some Batswana athletes that were going for an international event. This old man looked at me and said, ‘one day you too will be on a plane to run in faraway places’. I dismissed him as a dreamer.”

The prophecy ÔÇô if that is what it was ÔÇô did not take too long to come to pass. A few months afterwards, in his first year at junior secondary school, Baloi would indeed board the plane to represent Botswana at a youth competition in Madagascar. At that, his first international event, he got a bronze medal in the 800m race, the race that would become his speciality. He followed that up with two gold medals for 800m and 1500m in Mauritius. Later, he would reach the finals at the World Youth Games in Budapest, Hungary.

Athletics appeared to be Baloi’s calling. When he completed secondary education, he decided to shelf any thoughts of tertiary studies to devote his time to running. In 2005, the Olympic Committee facilitated his entry into the Euro Series, together with Amantle Montsho and California Molefe. They were based in Germany, but competed throughout the major European cities. It was an eye-opener on what really happens behind the glamour.

“We had a German manager who secured races for us, though there was no written contract,” says Baloi.

Did he make money?

“We didn’t make much money, but it wasn’t too bad either,” he responds.

He kept going for the series each year, hoping for a big break. But without a manager to secure elite competitions, and negotiate bonuses and appearance fees, this was a difficult course.
Although his path seemed an unending bend, he qualified for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, China. The excitement died the moment he arrived in Beijing when he caught a flu bug. He was eliminated in the heats.

He says though he did not go beyond the first round, he was not disappointed.

“I decided that since this was my first time at the Olympics, in 2012 I would be more experienced, better prepared, and my performance would improve,” he says.

He remembers 2010 as the year of great promise. He was in great shape and good form. Though he had a nagging groin problem that compelled him to start slowly, the boy was burning the track, because as soon as the muscle warmed he did not just accelerate; he exploded. Such was the case at the Belgian leg of the Euro Series. He started almost at the back of the pack, but ended up winning the race. He speculates that such a feat might be what made the authorities take keen interest in him. At the end of the race, his sample was taken for drug testing. He thought nothing of it.
There was no oracle to sound a warning.

In fact, no benevolent seer had tapped his shoulder in warning some weeks earlier when he walked into a pharmacy in Gaborone’s Main Mall to purchase his regular recovery supplement. His usual mixture was out of stock, and he asked the pharmacist for an equivalent. The man behind the counter recommended Jack 3D, which was what Baloi and his companions bought. They thought nothing of it ÔÇô until he got news from Gaborone, when he was in Switzerland.

He had just set the track alight once again, registering 1:46:03, which automatically qualified him for the Commonwealth Games, where the qualifying time was 1:47:00. Excitedly, he called Bobby Gaseitsiwe, the technical officer at the Botswana Athletics Association, to relay news of his feat.
“But instead of celebrating with me, Bobby sounded unhappy,” Baloi recalls. “He said there was a letter from IAAF which stated that I had tested positive for a banned substance.”

His recollection is of a rollercoaster of emotions that ranged from disbelief, to devastation, and a strange feeling that this was a bad dream from which he would soon awake ÔÇô and everything would be alright again.

What followed was an emotional bumpy ride that he was to blot out. On the advice of Kabelo Kgosiemang, the high jumper, he asked BAA to send him the sample codes, which did not match the ones he had. He was later told that upon BAA informing IAAF of this discrepancy, the international athletics body said there could have been a mistake. But the nature of the mistake was never explained. Though he asked for his Sample B to be tested, he says this was never done. Instead, he flew back home for a hearing. He presented the container of the supplement before the panel that heard his case, which comprised representatives of BAA and Botswana National Olympic Committee (BNOC). Interestingly, he says the name of the banned substance did not appear on the container’s nutritional information.
“The panel hypothesized that perhaps the manufacturer had used a different name for the banned substance,” he says.

When the hearing ended, he was given a three-month suspension. He accepted his fate gracefully, and continued his training schedule, knowing that after three months he would be going to the Commonwealth Games. Nothing would have prepared him for the dazing blow that would follow some days later with the news that IAAF had suspended him for two years. He had been based at the BNSC’s Athletes Village, in Gaborone. When the IAAF’s decision was communicated to Baloi, he packed his bags and headed back home in Mahalapye. A few days later, he retreated to the same cattle-post where, in another life and another time, an unlettered herdsman had predicted that the youngster would become an international athlete. Before leaving Gaborone, there had been an undertaking from BAA to help him appeal the IAAF’s decision. Later he was told that it would be too costly. He weighed his options, and realized that at the age of 27, with a two-year suspension from the only vocation he knew and loved, and having let opportunities for tertiary studies pass by, his options were limited. He decided to start all over ÔÇô as a goat farmer. He bought a breeding stock with what was left of his savings. A year into his suspension, Baloi made the decision that he knew he would have to make one day.

“I woke up one morning and decided that I was done with athletics,” he says. “There was just no way I could make a comeback.”

He was resigned to his new life and coming to terms with his decision when an unexpected call came from Glody Dube, the 800m finalist at Sydney 2000. At Dube’s urging, Baloi reluctantly came back to Gaborone, changed his mind about quitting and started to train.

“I stayed in Glody’s house for four months before securing my own place. He got me a job and helped me to get back on my feet,” Baloi attests.

He has been back in Gaborone for 14 months. He states that throughout his suspension period he received no support from BAA. No counselling was arranged to help him deal with his situation.
I ask him if he considers himself a cheat.

“I am not,” he answers. “I never intended to dope. You see, there is nobody in professional sport who doesn’t take supplements. It is the nature of the business that there will be times when your body tells you that it has reached its limit, and you have to supplement.”

The suspension not only means that he cannot enter officially sanctioned races, but he must also not be seen in vicinity of official training facilities. He has been reduced to a pariah who trains on his own. He points to a hill in Tlokweng, where he currently resides.

“That is where I train,” he says.

With his suspension coming to an end this month, Baloi is training for his comeback. But there is a little hitch. He doesn’t quite know the exact date that his suspension ends.

“I have never seen my suspension letter, so I don’t even know the exact date that my suspension ends ÔÇô whether it’s beginning of July, mid-July or end of the month. I was only told that it ends in July,” he says.

On reflection, Baloi states that he was a victim of circumstances that included his ignorance and the care-free attitude that prevailed in local sport at the time. In a professional setting, he says, supplements are supposed to be provided by the management which consists of qualified personnel. However, he believes his experience had a silver lining to it, because he has been told that these days BAA pays more attention to athletes’ supplement. He states that it had to happen to someone from Botswana for the whole country to begin to take note.

“Before something happens in your immediate environment, you tend to relax and think it only happens to other people. Unfortunately no-one came [to talk] to me. They probably thought I had taken something I came across in Germany; yet it was just a supplement I had bought from Notwane Pharmacy. I had always thought that if it was something from Notwane I would be on the safe side,” he says.

As he confesses to miss the thrill of competitive running, Baloi believes he will come back a better athlete.

I ask him what his thoughts are seeing that he is going to miss the London Olympics.
“I have accepted that I will not be there,” he says. “I have accepted my situation. I have erased the entire calendar of these past two years from my slate.”

But one thing he has not erased is his Olympic dream.

“I still believe that I will compete at the Olympics again,” he vows.
Only this time there is no oracle to affirm this.

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