Story by Paul Gains
More than three weeks have passed since Spanish anti-doping authorities raided the Arrahona Hotel near Barcelona and led now infamous middle-distance coach Jama Aden away in handcuffs.
The incident, captured live by television cameras, sent shock waves across the athletics world. It led many to maintain that Aden’s runners – including world record holder Genzebe Dibaba and 3:47 miler Ayanleh Souleiman – had long been benefiting from illegal drugs provided by Aden himself.
Others close to the Somalian-born coach were astonished as he had always appeared to condemn dopers.
Raids result in finding EPO
After searching all the hotel rooms, police found EPO in the room belonging to one of Aden’s athletes, Mousaeb Balla of Qatar, and in a room belonging to a physiotherapist. The local judge ordered Aden and Balla to surrender their passports for 30 days while the investigation continues.
According to Aden, the hotel is regularly used by his close knit group and by other national teams as a seasonal training camp because there is both a park and a track nearby. There were more than 30 athletes at the hotel during the raid and all were subjected to blood and urine tests on the spot. Authorities haven’t announced if any were positive for banned substances.
“I didn’t know what to believe when we came outside,” Aden said during a telephone interview. “I saw the media. I saw, of course, when they say they found drugs in my room. It was a news story but it wasn’t my room it was somebody else’s who I have no association with. We just say ‘hello’ at the track.”
He adds that he wants to clear his name in the media and make the facts known as his reputation has become severely tarnished. “Of course when Genzebe broke the [world 1,500m] record, they say ‘obviously she cheated.’ But she is tested all the time,” he says. “There is no way in the world you can get away with cheating if you have a high level athlete.”
Aden offers explanation of events resulting in EPO discovery
Those following professional cycling, or the doping scandal in track and field for that matter, might disagree. Although most people have been quick to distance themselves from Aden, his athletes remain loyal. Upon his release from jail, he returned to the hotel to show the police report and his file to assure them he had done nothing wrong. His relationships with the Qatar Athletics Federation remains intact.
He says he will continue to train athletes given that the authorities didn’t find anything on him. “The federation, they evaluated things, and they saw I didn’t have any drugs in my room or my apartment,” says Aden. “The athletes know my history also.”
When asked for his explanation, he says that the problem was with a physiotherapist working for the Saudi Arabia team. That is a person who he says he has nothing to do with other than the fact that they all share a track for training.
But what about his athlete, Mousaeb Balla, who was found possessing EPO?
“Balla shared a room with an athlete from Yemen and they found EPO in this room,” says Aden. “And up to now we don’t know who it belongs to,” he says noting that athletes come to the camp from a variety of countries: Algeria, Yemen, Egypt, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia and Djibouti being examples.
Asked point blank if he has ever given illegal drugs to his athletes, Aden answers with a resounding “Never.”
“I am always against doping. I always believe hard work and coaching can develop athletes to a high level without drug cheating,” he says. He points specifically to Genzebe Dibaba and Souleiman when he says this noting that both athletes have performed the way they have without the use of drugs.
“The problem we are facing in the world now, as we are a very good training group, everybody points fingers and says ‘Oh they are cheating,’” he says. “The people who did not succeed are killing the others because everybody is not the same. Some people can run good, some people cannot. Some like to bad mouth others. The media are going crazy now. This is the problem with athletics now.”
American pro runner David Torrence (who will run for Peru in the 2016 Olympics) has been outspoken in his suspicions of the Aden group after training with them briefly in 2014. He has claimed Aden pressured him to take injections which he refused. The coach denies he was suggesting anything illegal.
“He was talking with me one day when he was at the camp,” Aden responds. “We were talking in the lobby. I was talking to him about calcium for shin splints. But I never forced him. I never said I would give him anything to do, anything. He was sore in the calves and so we talked about calcium and how it is good for this area.”
The IAAF steps in
Immediately following the raid, the IAAF issued a statement that the police action was the culmination of a three-year investigation into Aden and his group. Aden acknowledges the IAAF is right to hunt cheats.
“The IAAF have the right to investigate athletes and everybody,” he says. “But what did they find? They came to my room. The police were here. They found magnesium and calcium and vitamins.”
But Spanish media reported that police followed him taking plastic bags containing used needles to the garbage outside the building.
“It is injections that I use for myself,” he said. “After world indoors, my energy was down and the doctor told me I should take these vitamins and magnesium and calcium. I threw the garbage bag outside.” The reason for that, he says, is for safety reasons to protect others who stay with him in the room, including his 14 and 17 year old children, who were with him at the camp.
What about the Mo Farah accusations?
The British media have also been quick to connect Mo Farah to Aden following the hotel raid. Aden does not deny that he and Farah have been friends for some time and that they have both trained in Sululta, Ethiopia during the winter months. But he says the association is more the result of their heritage.
“He has his own coach and his own training,” Aden clarifies. “He likes Ethiopia because there is a track there and he always has his own program. Of course because of our Somalian background people want to look for the bad stories: ‘Maybe Jama helped him.’”
He says that Farah’s achievements and medal count has been bringing him all sorts of attention but he is surpirsed by British media trying to accuse him of doping. “This guy has been working hard for a long time all the time. He has a coach, the Federation is behind him, a full team. I think they should not take credit away from him. That’s all I can say. I have nothing to do with his program.”
So what’s going to happen now? Aden expects the whole thing to blow over and that his passport will be returned shortly. If that is the case, he hints he might be in a position to seek compensation for his and his athletes’ defamed reputations. It may not be that simple though. There is a lot at stake for the IAAF and for the Spanish authorities and they will likely not leave any stone unturned to get to the truth.
Meanwhile, last Friday night, Dibaba who has been nursing a problem in her big toe and was advised not to wear spikes, won a low key 1,500m in Barcelona. She ran 3:59.83 beating Ethiopian compatriot Axumawit Embay by four seconds. Souleiman, who joined Aden’s group in 2012 having already run 3:34.32 for 1,500m, won the 800m in 1:44.06 at the same meet.
Aden fully expects to be with them in Rio next month.
Editor’s note: Regular contributor Paul Gains has known the subject of this interview, Jama Aden, for 33 years. Back in 1983, Aden, an athlete then, ran a 3:56 mile to set a Somalian national record. He worked for the Sudanese federation, Saudi Federation and now Qatar federation, and as a high profile coach of runners from various countries, mostly out of Ethiopia. Gains has travelled to Ethiopia multiple times, and has interviewed many of Aden’s athletes over the years, including Genzebe Dibaba, one of Aden’s most successful athletes. His connection with Aden and the Ethiopian running scene led him to obtain this exclusive interview, Aden’s first discussion with anyone in the media about the charges brought against him.