SOUTH AFRICA - JUNE 03, Ludwick Mamabolo wins the mens race during the 2012 Comrades Marathon on June 03, 2012 in South Africa. The 2012 Comrades Marathon is starting at the City Hall in Pietermaritzburg and finishing at the Sahara Kingsmead Cricket Stadium in Durban. Photo by Anesh Debiky / Gallo Images

What a shock to hear that Ludwick Mamabolo has tested positive for the banned performance enhancing substance with the tongue-twisting name of methylhexaneamine.

Mamabolo broke a seven-year drought of a male SA Comrades Marathon winner, and must have sacrificed many painful hours of his time and energy in training to achieve that feat.

As he anxiously awaits the results of a second sample test, I think I speak for many South Africans hoping that he is exonerated of cheating and that there is a satisfactory excuse for testing positive.

Hopefully all his hard work will not have been in vain. I believe that he took three months’ unpaid leave to prepare for the race.

The sports terrain seems to be a minefield for top athletes with a far-from-perfect solution to the testing and deterrence of using banned substances.

Some athletes, such as Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson, were clear cheats who were proved to be using powerful stimulants, and after being stripped of their titles and records, they will live the rest of their lives with the shame of their cheating hanging over their heads.

But when one interrogates some recent substance abuse accusations, I find that a great many adverse test results were far from clear-cut.

Many sports people were exonerated, but not before enduring lengthy periods of great anxiety and public opprobrium.

Springbok rugby players Chiliboy Ralepelle and Bjorn Basson suffered weeks of worry after their samples tested positive of the same methylhexaneamine substance, but were later absolved from culpability when the testing committee accepted the explanation that the drug was innocently ingested, possibly by the use of a general patented flu remedy.

Indeed, this is one of the fatal flaws in the system. Many of the drugs on the banned list can be found in such innocent everyday items as cough medication.

Renowned sports physician Dr Jon Patricios was quoted last week as saying that methylhexaneamine had such mild performance-enhancing properties that it would have had a negligible effect on the overall performance of an athlete like Mamabolo running a gruelling ultramarathon.

So why would Mamabolo knowingly take a chance that could ruin his career?

The testing regimen needs a radical overhaul to negate any wrongful shaming of innocent athletes.

Given the exoneration of Basson and Ralepelle, is it possible to prove without any doubt that a drug used in innocent everyday items has not been taken in error?

Legendary ultradistance cyclist Lance Armstrong is still being victimised and hounded about accusations of illegal substance abuse by the International Cycling Federation, but after a decade of trying it has yet to make any accusation stick.

If the testing system is so imperfect, surely the inquiries should be held in secret until an athlete’s guilt can be conclusively proved?

Mamabolo is set to remain in agonising limbo for possibly another three months until the process is wholly concluded.

The doping committee shouldn’t have subjected him to public scrutiny without a definitive finding of guilt.

Ken Bening

Witkoppie Ridge, Boksburg