After the euphoria of gold medals and tournament record times in the 2019 Pan American Games and Elite Pan Am Track Cycling Championships came a sickening crash to earth for Trinidad and Tobago cyclists Njisane Phillip and Keron Bramble.
Feted in September, then vilified by Christmas. Phillip said he has seen it all before; but to be labelled a ‘deserter’ by his own sporting body?
Yesterday, Trinidad and Tobago Cycling Federation (TTCF) racing committee chairman Joseph Roberts was quoted in the Trinidad Express as expressing ‘surprise and disappointment’ that Phillip and Bramble did not make themselves available for the final UCI World Cup prior to the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, which will be held in Milton, Canada from 24 January.
A Trinidad Guardian headline on the same topic read: ‘T&TCF drops Phillip, Bramble for W/Cup’ with the additional claim that ‘TTCF officials refused to disclose whether the Pan Am doping matter had any bearing on the decision’ after ‘Pan Am Sports’ decision to strip [the Trinidad and Tobago cycling sprint team] of two medals won at last year’s Pan Am Games’.
It is, as far as the cyclists are concerned, a continuation of the lies and half-truths that have assailed the athletes over the past two weeks.
Phillip is indeed the centre of a doping violating case initiated by Pan Am Sports, albeit for a substance that is not a performance enhancer.
Wired868 was informed that the cyclist tested positive for marijuana, which is allowed out of competition and carries a maximum penalty of just three months suspension by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) if used during a tournament, which is a significant reduction on the previous penalty of four years.
“During the extensive two-year review process for the 2021 version of the World Anti-Doping Code, we received feedback related to substances of abuse such as cocaine or cannabis,” WADA spokesman James Fitzgerald told Cycling Weekly on 12 November 2019. “It was felt that the use of these drugs was often unrelated to sport performance. While the code does not prohibit the use of these drugs out of competition, sometimes a presence is detected at an in-competition test, even though the use occurred in a social context with no effect.
“It was felt also that in cases where an athlete has a drug problem and is not seeking or benefitting from performance enhancement, the priority should be on the athlete’s health rather than on imposing a lengthy sporting sanction.”
Pan Am Sports’ unilateral decision to strip Phillip of silver and Team Trinidad and Tobago of a gold medal, even before an appeal has been heard, is clearly at odds with this stance; and it is notable that the global governing body for the sport, the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), is yet to inform the TTFCF of any sanction.
Galling then, for Phillip and his teammates, to be treated—in their opinion—like cheats and criminals by their own media.
Their mood was not helped by claims that were dropped by the cycling team from one newspaper and deserted their teammates by another.
The 27-year-old Bramble was hurt by the former claim. The 28-year-old Phillip, Trinidad and Tobago’s most recognisable cyclist of this millennium, was furious at the latter. Both insisted they told cycling officials months ago that they would withdraw from the team once there was no realistic chance of qualifying for the Tokyo Olympics.
“We were going to withdraw ourselves from the team sprint, but we were still willing to go and support our boys; but they didn’t listen,” Phillip told Wired868. “[…] Two days a week, me and Bramble would go to sessions and do some simulations with the riders to help them prepare. We are supporting the boys 100 percent.
“I want to see my boys turn up when they go [to the Olympics], but they have created a shit show… So don’t let them come and tarnish me! If it is one person who cares about Trinidad and Tobago cycling, it is me!”
Bramble took a similar line.
“I gave 100 percent to the sport for the last two years with little support,” said Bramble, “and now they are tarnishing my name. I know I didn’t get dropped but it is for the public to know.
“I told the coach (Erin Hartwell) since 2019 that if the team is not going to make it, I won’t come to training. He knows we are not going to qualify so why play games with the public? Why waste the government’s money and continue to go for team sprint events when we cannot qualify?”
Trinidad and Tobago’s chances of having a cycling sprint team in Tokyo seems to lie somewhere between impossible and implausible, according to who you speak to. (Although, notably, Nicholas Paul and Kwesi Browne are virtually assured of Olympic spots for individual cycling events.)
National cycling director Erin Hartwell, a former Olympic silver medallist for the United States at the 1996 Games, told Wired868 that the dream is still alive.
“We can actually still qualify with a little bit of luck,” said Hartwell. “We would need to medal in Canada and then finish well in the [Cycling] World Championship in Germany next month. I won’t say we need to medal [in Germany], but we will need Poland and Japan to falter.
“It is not easy by any stretch, but it is still possible.”
The top eight cycling teams in the world, based on a pointing system, will compete at the Olympics. Points are assigned based on the country’s finishes at multiple annual World Cup events as well as their last two World Championships and elite continental events.
At present, Trinidad and Tobago are ranked 10th in the world by UCI.
“We are behind Russia, Poland and Japan which are the three countries we are chasing, and we have to pass two out of the three,” said local cycling analyst Gary Acosta. “[…] It is difficult. We are against the wall but not down and out. They would need a good placing in Milton and probably to beat [two from Russia, Poland and Japan] by two or three spots at the World Championships.”
Is it the responsibility of the athlete to keep toiling away until unlikely becomes unfeasible? And did the TTCF know of the stance of Phillip and Bramble yet—at least in the case of the Guardian article—failed to share it with the press?
Hartwell, for his part, was not about to waste sleep over the finer details.
“I have not been made aware that anyone has quit, so you will have to ask the TTCF about that,” said Hartwell. “I am employed with the Sports Company and seconded to the TTCF; and that is between the athletes and the TTCF. I can only work with the athletes who show up every day. When I am officially informed of their status, then I can make decisions going forward.
“We are down a couple of guys, but for now I am just planning tomorrow’s training sessions with the cyclists who show up.
“[…] I had a meeting with one of the athletes where we had a disagreement over qualification criteria; but my position as national coach is we as a team are still targeting qualification for the Olympic Games…”
TTCF racing committee secretary Rowena Williams confirmed that, contrary to the Trinidad Guardian report, the boys did withdraw their services. They were not dropped.
“They asked to be excused for a bit,” said Williams. “They asked for some time off to [recover] mentally and physically… So I was surprised by the [Guardian] report.”
Williams said Phillip and Bramble informed racing committee chairman Joseph Roberts—at a meeting on 27 December—that they were unavailable for the upcoming World Cup in Canada.
Roberts declined comment and said only that the TTCF will issue a release by the end of the week. He pointed to several media reports, including an incorrect claim by TV6 that there were two athletes guilty of a doping violation rather than one, as the reason for his hesitance.
The TTCF should conceivably be on a high after a largely successful 2019. Instead, there is discord between officials, athletes and media.
“There has been some negative vibes and people putting out things they aren’t sure about; and it is not reflecting well [on cycling],” said Williams. “For instance, the issue with the doping thing while we are still waiting on the arbitration results. We shouldn’t let this one thing dampen where we are going; we don’t have a history of cheating.
“[…] I guess our culture is we seem to prefer negativity. We hope the arbitration goes in favour of the athlete, but the focus should be looking forward to the Olympics and promoting good and not bad. But there are a lot of people who think differently.”
If Phillip has been the poster boy for cycling. Hartwell has become a vital cog for the local sport in recent times.
The two men first crossed paths almost a decade ago in Canada. Phillip was training there while the coach was part of the Canada Cycling set-up. The Siparia star recommended Hartwell to the TTCF and, on 27 September 2017, the Sports Company of Trinidad and Tobago—then chaired by former West Indies cricketer Dinanath Ramnarine—hired the American in a move meant to boost the local sport.
An Olympic spot for a men’s cycling team would be the cherry on the cake.
“I have been here for a little over two and a half years and it has been a very, very difficult process,” said Hartwell. “Getting a men’s team sprint spot at the Olympics is a hyper-competitive process to begin with, as there are so many teams that are very competitive. The team sprint is the marquee event in cycling and it really showcases the strength of a nation’s cycling programme.
“That said we are up against challenges that other teams don’t face. The likes of New Zealand, Russia, Germany, Japan, France; these teams are well-funded and well-staffed.
“The reality is there is a single paid person in the cycling programme in Trinidad who is running the entire programme and that’s me. I am the coach and I also have to act as manager, director, as coordinator, etc.”
Hartwell is paid. His athletes are not. The suggestion from Phillip and Bramble is they may share the same dream as their coach, but they have different realities.
At 27, Bramble has never held a full-time job. Instead, he chases his dream on the track, funded fully by his parents who are both retired—his mother, Anetta, is a former employee at San Fernando General Hospital, while his father, Wayne, was a steel bender.
“I have dedicated my life to getting to the Olympics, but we went to the last three World Cups and our best place is fourth,” said Bramble. “We have to win the next World Cup and maybe the World Championships too to qualify. It’s not possible and the finances are hard on me. It costs me TT$108 a day to train as there is gym in the morning in Port of Spain and then track in Couva; and I live in San Fernando.
“The support we get is very little. When we travel, they pay for our tickets and we pay to carry our bikes. Sometimes we have to wait six months to a year for reimbursement.
“[…] Qualifying for the Olympic team sprint was my objective and it isn’t possible to qualify now. We don’t get a salary for this and, even now, money is owed to us for meal allowances from the Pan Am. Life goes on.”
“I commend every team member for coming out day in and day out and not receiving a dollar,” said Phillip, whose stepdad Phillip Whiteman, a local contractor, has largely bankrolled his career and the equipment of the national team. “Check the books and see when last the cyclists receive any funding … The prime minister gave us TT$1 million for equipment, but it is not like we got money to come to training or to fund our diet as athletes.”
Hartwell, 50, was keen to stress on what the Trinidad and Tobago government does provide to cycling.
“Prior to the funding from the prime minister in November, we literally had no national equipment except for a toolbox,” said Hartwell. “We are understaffed and under-resourced. But I will say the Sports Company has done a fantastic job in getting us to these events. Without them, we would have been dead in the water a long time ago.”
Undeniably, despite the issues, cycling in Trinidad and Tobago is on the upswing.
“In the last couple of years, we have done the most for cyclists than at any time in the history of cycling here,” said Hartwell. “This is the first time the Federation has addressed the equipment of the national team [and] is trying to build an asset base from which they can supply national teams.
“We trying to get more in line with the major international cycling bodies and we have had an unprecedented level of success in our cycling programme. And in that time, there have been world records, regional records, multiple national best, career personal best.
“[…] For the first time, athletes are performing because of the system and not in spite of it—even though there is always room to improve.”
There have been growing pains. Bramble and Phillip suggested that the cyclists deserve more credit for their tactical successes of the team too.
“The team composition wasn’t right for the first year,” said Bramble. “We stood up to the coach and made changes. That’s when we really took off.”
In Hartwell’s first year in charge, Bramble and Phillip said the sprint team comprised of Phillip, Nicholas Paul and Kwesi Browne in that order. Supposedly after complaints, Hartwell shuffled his pack in 2019 and emerged with a record-breaking relay team of Bramble, Phillip and Paul.
It should be noted that heated exchanges of ideas between athletes and coaches are far from unusual in high performance sport. In this case, the end result seemed to have been beneficial.
Hartwell described himself as ‘encouraged’ by the improvements made by his cyclists.
“I think the athletes in this programme have given the sport a good name and we have a world class cycling centre,” he said. “So the sky is still the limit. There is a bit of bacchanal, but that is the nature of high-profile sport. As much as we address issues, we can’t let it beat us down.
“I am hired to do the job, which is to show up and train the athletes who turn up. We will continue to plug away.”
Of course, cycling will progress far smoother with buy-in from its athletes. Phillip suggested that his pain is felt by Trinidad and Tobago athletes in all disciplines. He urged officials to be more mindful of athletes’ mental health.
“As a teenager coming up, you might be real talented,” said Phillip, “let’s say you are that one out of 1,000 and you go to pro straight out of secondary school. Everyone builds you up so much at point.
“Then next year you have an ankle injury that you need to fix, and you don’t do as well. Then you’re looking to get back to the level you were at and asking for a little help and funding; but nobody wants to hear about you.”
He explained how comforted athletes were by knowing what needed to be done to access the top tier TT$250,000 funding accessible through the Elite Athlete Assistance Programme, which was initiated by late former prime minister Patrick Manning. This funding has virtually dried up over the last two years under the current government.
“That $250,000 elite funding was law,” said Phillip. “With that you know once you get ranked you don’t have to worry about no Federation or any bullshit. Now they don’t want to give you anything and the minister not giving you any money.
“[…] I speak to all my fellow national athletes and everyone is banking on rewards now. You go out somewhere and do something to get reward, which can help cover your bills.
“Otherwise you have to go to the [Office of the] Prime Minister and you might get a grant for about TT$60,000. Even [Olympic gold medallist] Keshorn Walcott has to do that.”
Williams insisted the TTCF is trying to help its athletes reach their goals and will continue to do so.
“These are our guys and our cyclists, and we have to support them no matter what,” she said. “If there is an issue, we need to help solve the issue for them… There is no way we should give the impression that we are putting them under the bus, after they worked so hard to give the country glory. That’s not right.
“I would encourage those guys to not feel so down. We are not fighting them; we want to continue to assist and help them to achieving their goals.
“I am not the one who is going to the Olympics. They are working hard for their dreams and we are supposed to be helping them with that.”
The TTCF holds an election on 11 January. Hopefully, the welfare of athletes will be at the forefront of the minds of the administrators.
Phillip will not be shy to speak his mind when he thinks that things are not right.
“I will not let them flush me down the toilet,” said Phillip.