His arms pumping in unison, his head still as the night air, his posture perfect – Justin Gatlin was a picture of form in the last 50m of the Men’s 100m 2017 World Championships. But the crowd watching from London’s Olympic Stadium chose not to admire his technique in victory, honed over a career of now unparalleled longevity in men’s sprinting – instead, by booing Gatlin, they helped to narrate a story of doping in athletics that is wholly inconsistent.
In July 2006, the American sprinter Justin Gatlin began his four-year ban from athletics after testing positive for “testosterone or its precursors”. His coach at the time was Trevor Graham who later received a life ban from USADA, the US Anti-doping Agency, for his role in the BALCO drug scandal that rocked both the sprint queen Marion Jones’ career and American sport in general.
Gatlin was not stripped of his Olympic and World Championship 100m titles for 2004 and 2005, respectively but doubt had been cast over the legitimacy of his entire career. One can thus understand the spectators’ reaction inside the London Olympic Stadium after Gatlin’s defeat of their darling Usain Bolt. Unfortunately, their logic is flawed.
Fellow 100m finalist Yohan Blake, who shares a coach with Bolt, has previously tested positive for methylhexaneamine, a drug introduced into the US dietary market by BALCO chemist Patrick Arnold. Yet as he was presented to the crowd before Gatlin, Blake was cheered. The Mail on Sunday has recently revealed that 88 finalists from the 2012 London Olympics have once served a drugs ban. During those Olympics not a single track and field athlete was booed – not even Gatlin. But the crowd are not to blame. They are simply relaying a message propagated by the major news networks.
In Saturday’s final, Bolt was unable to close the gap on the silver medallist Christian Coleman because, for once, he ran “tight”. With his face strained and head and body rocking from side to side, Gatlin maintained his composure through the line and ousted Coleman from first position. Roles were reversed from the 2015 World Championships when Bolt overtook a tense Gatlin. With the American arguably the pre-race favourite, and riding the wave of a 28-race unbeaten streak, Bolt’s victory was seen as a great triumph for clean sport. The “drugs cheat” Gatlin had been defeated.
The BBC’s chief sports writer helped with the good versus evil narrative. “Usain Bolt delivers his greatest miracle in beating Justin Gatlin” he titled his post-race opinion piece. Steve Cram, athlete turned BBC commentator, took it one step further with his usual hyperbole, “he’s saved his title, he’s saved his reputation – he may have even saved his sport.”
Yet the inconsistency of message delivered by the British broadcasters was disappointing. On the final day of the championships when Bolt led the Jamaican 4x100m relay team to victory, Cram squealed in delight. There was no mention of Asafa Powell’s drug ban one year earlier. And no mention of Jamaica’s victory damaging the sport – by virtue of Powell’s involvement. A year later Nesta Carter, another member of that relay team, tested for positive for a performance-enhancing drug during the 2008 Beijing Olympics’ retests.
This behaviour from high-profile figures such as Cram does little to advance the war on drugs in sports. The issue of doping in athletics should encompass the full breadth of the sport and, if not, then not at all. One has to wonder if Cram would have any interest in Justin Gatlin’s history if it were not for his success.
Gatlin does not disagree. In his post-victory press commitments he stated “I became more of a rival for Usain. I guess that is where the booing comes from.” Gatlin was not booed at major championships from 2011 to 2015.
Usain Bolt too, while one of the few elite sprinters in history to never fail a drugs test, must be criticised for his failure to use his global popularity to further the war on drugs. Bolt has had innumerable opportunities to denounce Gatlin for his drug taking. Never has he made the type of statement his adoring fans made after the 100m final. Rather as Bolt embraced Gatlin post-race, the Jamaican told him “you don’t deserve these boos”, according to the American.
Publically he described Gatlin as an “excellent person” and that he “really appreciate(s) competing with him”. When a journalist asked Bolt if he thought the slower times at this year’s championships were the result of better drug testing procedures he considered the question “disrespectful”. At the Beijing 2015 World Champions there were 21 sub ten second runs, whereas this year there have been less than ten. Bolt laughed and chose to defend Gatlin. “Justin has done his time throughout the years and he has proven himself over and over again” he stated.
This comes after he declared that he held “no hard feelings” against his relay teammate Nesta Carter. Carter’s positive drugs test led to Bolt being stripped of one of his nine Olympic gold medals. Criticism of Asafa Powell for his doping ban failed to materialise and he informed his countryman and close friend that he was “sorry to hear what was going on”. Nor did he call upon the IAAF and WADA to reveal the identity of the male Jamaican sprinters who tested positive for clenbuterol during the Beijing Olympics retesting procedures.
As a sea of discontent met Justin Gatlin during his moment of glory, one couldn’t help but feel uneasy at the inconsistency of the message. Justin Gatlin has been portrayed as one of the few “dopers” in an increasingly clean sport by many media outlets. As they choose to label him a pariah, they fail to educate their viewers on the tens of other athletes who have once breached anti-doping rules.
The men’s 4x100m relay World Championship event presents another chance to tell the real story of doping in athletics. When the teams are announced to the crowd pre-race one must hope a chorus of boos meets all athletes who have served doping bans.
But if, and when, that doesn’t happen a rare few may choose to cheer for Justin Gatlin, if only in contempt of the crowd’s hypocrisy, and admire a career that has been bookended by 100m Olympic Gold in 2004 and World Championship Gold in 2017. A true demonstration of longevity in more ways than one.
Edmund Willison is a journalist and researcher focussing on doping and corruption in sport. You can follow him on Twitter @honestsport_ew.