The culture of running

In Stride

Are We Being Unfair to Justin Gatlin?

The headlines can be misleading, particularly with track’s most famous doper

Usain Bolt embraces Justin Gatlin after losing to him in his final professional race at the IAAF World Championships, London. (Rex Features/AP)
IAAF

The headlines can be misleading, particularly with track’s most famous doper

For the majority of spectators on hand for Saturday night’s IAAF World Championships 100-meter final, it was supposed to be the Usain Bolt show—a glorious last hurrah for the fastest human in history. It seemed a forgone conclusion. In the lead-up to the race, one journalist had to gall to ask Bolt what would happen if he lost.

“I can’t believe you’re asking me that,” Bolt said, according to The Guardian. “We won’t have that problem, don’t worry about it.”

Alas, we now have that problem.

As anyone reading this is already aware, Bolt didn’t win—which means that he lost. Unable to recover from a poor start, he finished third in his last competitive (non-relay) race. To make matters worse for the 56,000 in attendance, the spoiler was none other than Justin Gatlin—the veteran U.S. sprinter who has served not one, but two doping suspensions. The race came down to a photo finish. After it became clear that Gatlin had won, the stadium erupted in boos.

A headline in The Sun summed up the general mood:

“GAT-CRASH Usain Bolt sunk as drugs cheat Justin Gatlin ruins golden goodbye by storming to 100m gold.”

Needless to say, Gatlin had few allies last weekend in London Stadium (though Usain Bolt congratulated his rival and allegedly told him that he did not deserve to be booed). However, the retired American sprinter and BBC commentator Michael Johnson argued that the media was perhaps partially responsible for making Gatlin a scapegoat for all that was wrong with professional athletics. "I think we have presented him as a villain," Johnson told BBC Sport.

For his part, Gatlin was surprised by the boos, and said that he wasn’t booed when he competed in London at the 2012 Olympics. Of course, in 2012 Gatlin did not yet pose a serious threat to Usain Bolt. That would change once Gatlin began reeling off personal bests in 2014 and 2015—an impressive late-career renaissance for a sprinter in his 30s. Around the time of the 2015 IAAF World Championships, there was such an influx in Gatlin-bashing in the British media that sports lawyer Mike Morgan felt compelled to write an article taking a closer look at what was actually known about Gatlin’s case.

In the wake of Saturday’s boo fest, it’s time for a refresher.

To this day, there has been no ruling that Gatlin ever knowingly took performance-enhancing drugs. He has not publicly confessed to doing so. That does not mean that he is innocent, but it’s a fact that should be kept in mind when the presumption of innocence is one of the most firmly ensconced ideals of our legal system. 

Gatlin was issued two suspensions, one in 2001, the other in 2006.

In the first case, he was a 19-year-old college student whose urine samples tested positive for the banned stimulant amphetamine at the USA Track and Field Junior National Championships. The presence of “small amounts” of the substance was attributed entirely to Gatlin’s Adderall medication, which he had been taking since age fourteen to treat the attention-deficit disorder (ADD) that he was diagnosed with as a nine-year-old. Since amphetamines are not prohibited by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) outside of competition, the common course for most athletes is simply to discontinue use of medication a few days before racing. That is what Gatlin did prior to the USATF meet, even though, as the American Arbitration Association (AAA) Panel that handled his case noted, he would probably have been granted an in-competition exemption had he sought it.

In its initial decision, the AAA imposed a two-year ban, as mandated by IAAF rules, but only with the knowledge that Gatlin would be applying for early reinstatement. The AAA expressed concern (rather wistfully, it now seems) that “Mr. Gatlin’s reputation not be unnecessarily tarnished” since he was guilty of, at most, a “paperwork violation.”

Two months after the AAA decision, in July 2002, Gatlin was reinstated by the IAAF on the grounds that he had a “genuine medical explanation for his positive test.”

In 2006, at the Kansas Relays, Gatlin’s urine sample tested positive for the banned “substance testosterone or its precursors.” In his defense, Gatlin said that he had been tested 35 times, before and after the Kansas relays, and that the 2006 result was an aberration. Gatlin claimed to have never knowingly taken a banned substance, and that the only possible explanation he could think of was that his physical therapist, Christopher Whetstine, had rubbed testosterone-spiked cream on his legs prior to competition. As a motive, Gatlin submitted that Whetstine had recently been denied a bonus for his services, and was apparently aware that he would soon be fired. Whetstine denied the charges. Since Gatlin had no significance evidence, he was handed a four-year suspension, which was lifted in May 2010.

Considering the facts of these two cases, and as Mike Morgan makes clear in his article, the charge of “two-time drug cheat,” one frequently leveled at Gatlin in the press, is incorrect and possibly libelous. The 2001 AAA decision is unambiguous: “The Panel specifically notes that, in this case, Mr. Gatlin neither cheated nor did he intend to cheat. He did not intend to enhance his performance nor, given his medical condition, did his medication in fact enhance his performance.”

Gatlin’s 2006 explanation of testosterone cream sabotage, by contrast, seems much less innocent, especially since, to my knowledge, there have been no high-profile instances of this occurring in professional athletics. (That said, in 2015, when Propublica published its findings about the questionable goings-on at the Nike Oregon Project, it was revealed that head coach Alberto Salazar’s son was apparently used as a guinea pig to determine how much testosterone cream could trigger a positive result. Fear of sabotage of OP athletes was the alleged motive.)

All the same, it’s worth noting, as Morgan does, that one of the three AAA Panel members who made the decision on Gatlin’s case in 2006 found his claim plausible: “Mr. Gatlin’s accusation of sabotage was far from frivolous. He presented strong evidence that the trainer had a motive and an opportunity to sabotage him,” the panel member stated at the time. However, barring a confession or video evidence, an accusation of sabotage is very difficult to prove; hence, this Panel member also agreed that suspension was the right course of action.

It’s also very difficult to prove non-sabotage. The reason Gatlin was sanctioned was because he was unable to provide convincing evidence as to how the testosterone had entered his body. In the legal world of anti-doping, the burden of proof has to fall on those who fail drug tests—otherwise athletes can always claim innocence unless they are caught red-handed: EPO? I must have been injected while I was asleep.

That’s why suspending Gatlin was the right thing to do. But how many people booing him in the stadium the other night would have known the details of what led to his suspension? Probably not many.

As Mike Morgan recently put it to me over the phone: “At the end of the day, the general public gets its information about athletics from the BBC. Here in the UK, it is the home of athletics. If they are going to point out that this guy has a doping violation, which of course it’s their right to do and perhaps even their obligation to do, it’s also their obligation to explain the circumstances.”

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