POSTED: August 8th 2017

JOHN GOODBODY: Justin Gatlin's drugs case is not clear cut and he may not deserve the boos

(L to R) Usain Bolt (JAM) Bronze, Justin Gatlin (USA) Gold, and Christian Coleman (USA) Silver, at the medal ceremony for the World Championship 100 m final © Getty
(L to R) Usain Bolt (JAM) Bronze, Justin Gatlin (USA) Gold, and Christian Coleman (USA) Silver, at the medal ceremony for the World Championship 100 m final © Getty

THE JOHN GOODBODY COLUMN / An authoritative and exclusive series from Sports Features Communications

(SFC) The track career of Usain Bolt, probably the most recognisable figure in athletics history, will come to an end this weekend in London when he competes in the sprint relay for Jamaica. Last Sunday, the defeat in the World Championships 100 metres, his final solo race, was marked not just by the shock at the result but the resentment that American Justin Gatlin was victorious.

Both after the race but also, to a lesser extent, at the medal ceremony, Gatlin was booed by the 60,000 crowd. And this may occur again if he finishes ahead of Bolt in the 4 x 100 metres relay. Most of the British public, who have swarmed to attend these championships and applauded every competitor except Gatlin, are aware that the American is regarded as a 'two time drugs cheat', who many feel should not be running here.

Gatlin, his family and his agent Renaldo Nehemiah question why the sprinter has been singled out for jeering now when, firstly there are athletes competing in this event, who have also returned from drugs bans, and secondly, he did not receive this abuse at the 2012 Olympics.

The answer is that the issue of his participation was not so prominent, when Bolt was beating him, and also that many of the spectators in 2012 would not have been aware of Gatlin's past. Many people in the stadium last Saturday would however have remembered watching the 100 metres final on television, when the world championships were being screened from Beijing.

As Bolt beat Gatlin, the BBC showed Brendan Foster, the 1976 Olympic 10,000 metres bronze medallist, celebrating while his fellow commentator, Steve Cram, a former world mile record-holder, was saying that Bolt's victory "may have saved the sport." The delight then in Bolt's victory and the besmirching of Gatlin was echoed by the British national newspapers, which have also been hugely influential in shaping people's opinions.

For many of the fans, Gatlin therefore became the pantomime villain of athletics, while Bolt, who has never failed a drugs test, is seen as a pure knight in shining armour.

Yet, the case of Gatlin is far more complex than it has been perceived. His first positive test was in 2001, when he was 19, and, for the previous 10 years, had been taking medication for Attention Deficit Disorder. This contained an amphetamine, banned in competition, so on the recommendation of both the United States Anti-Doping Agency and USA Track and Field, he stopped taking his medication for the last three days before competition. However, Gatlin argued, that was not enough on this occasion.

He was initially banned for two years. However, the panel of the American Arbitration Association (AAA), who oversaw the case, stated that it was "very concerned that Mr Gatlin's reputation not be unnecessarily tarnished by a result of this decision." It went for review to the Council of the International Association of Athletic Federations (IAAF) who agreed that "Gatlin had a genuine medical explanation for his positive test."

The second positive test, after he had become Olympic champion in 2004, came in April 2006. Gatlin had an adverse finding for testosterone or its precursor, which he claimed came because his physiotherapist, who knew his contract was being terminated by the sprinter, had rubbed into his legs some cream contaminated with the male hormone.

Gatlin received a four year ban because all athletes are responsible for what enters their bodies, however that occurs. He avoided a life time ban because he helped the authorities with evidence against other athletes coached by Trevor Graham, eight of whom have been guilty of drugs offences. At the time, Gatlin was being advised by Graham.

I am not convinced by Gatlin's explanation and neither was the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) to whom he appealed. But I remain sufficiently uncertain about the two cases as well as recognising his achievement in coming back to win the world title at the age of 35, not to feel uneasy at the booing. In fact, as I watched the aftermath of the 100 metres last Saturday, I felt a twinge of sympathy for him. I may feel the same this week-end.

** JOHN GOODBODY will cover the 2016 Olympics for The Sunday Times, his 13th successive Summer Games and is the author of the audio book A History of the Olympics, read by Barry Davies, the BBC commentator. He was Sports News Correspondent of The Times 1986-2007, for whom he received journalistic awards in all three decades on the paper, including Sports Reporter of The Year in 2001.  

****The views expressed are the author's own and do not necessarily represent the views of Sports Features Communications.   

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