Should we forgive Justin Gatlin?

American Justin Gatlin, an athlete twice banned for taking illegal drugs, beat Usain Bolt in the 100 metres. Gatlin was continually jeered, but is this right? Can and should we forgive the American for his misdemeanours?

Two time drugs cheat - but can the world forgive Justin Gatlin?
Luke J. Harris
On 7 August 2017 19:55

The crowd’s reaction towards Justin Gatlin on both Friday and Saturday evenings demonstrated a great animosity towards the American. The primary reason for this is that he has twice been banned for failing drugs tests in a sport riddled and damaged by drugs scandals both recent and historical.

Gatlin was banned at the age of 20 in 2002, after traces of banned substance amphetamine were found in his blood following drugs testing at the 2001 USATF Junior National Championships.

This substance was taken as part of his medication for ADD, a condition which he had been diagnosed with at the age of 14. In order to compete, Gatlin stopped taking the drugs three days before competition as the substance was allowed out of competition, but not within, a common occurrence.

Both the USADA and AAA panels which investigated this agreed that the amounts found in his system demonstrated he’d stopped taking the drugs as instructed. The conclusion reached was that he was ‘certainly not a doper’, at worst this was a ‘technical or paperwork violation’ and that ‘Gatlin neither cheated nor did he intend to cheat’.

Despite this, the IAAF rules instructed that he had to be banned for two years whatever the substances of the failed test. Two months later on 3 July 2002, Gatlin was reinstated with immediate effect, as was allowed.

To some, an intention to cheat or not is unimportant, as he broke the rules. Ignorance and mistakes are not a defence (demonstrated by the recent Maria Sharapova incident). The ruling of those sentencing upon this case demonstrated their perspective on the case, but he did have an illegal substance within his body.

Four years later, Gatlin was banned for a second time following ‘testosterone or its precursors’ being found in a urine sample. Gatlin’s defence was that his physical therapist had rubbed a new product into his legs prior to the event where the tests had been carried out. He claimed that he had been sabotaged by his therapist who he was in the midst of a financial dispute with because of a decision to terminate their contract.

The panel judged that there was insufficient information as to how the testosterone had entered his body and Gatlin could not prove how the substance had entered his body. A four year ban followed, despite the fact that he had been tested 34 times before and after the event and not once had his tests demonstrated any trace of testosterone.

Both cases of Gatlin’s bans are undoubtedly complex. In the first instance, he never attempted to deny that he was taking the drug. Gatlin took the drug as allowed, but more care should have been taken in his medication before the race. The second case is very different. Gatlin had a case for sabotage, but was unable to prove it. Consequently, he was convicted and duly sentenced to an eight year ban which was subsequently reduced to four years.

Whatever the circumstances, these two incidents are harmful to athletics and, for many, constituted another nail in its drug ridden coffin. Athletics has been continually damaged by drugs scandals for many decades, most recently the Russian doping scandal. Although there are many athletes who have been convicted of doping competing in London (including fellow 100m finalist Yohan Blake), Gatlin has become the focus of this hatred.

Explaining this anger is a tough proposition. Gatlin competes in the most popular event in the sport, making him a prominent figure. He is also a rival of Usain Bolt, the darling of the sport. Gatlin’s public persona has also sometimes harmed his reputation and made him somewhat unpopular with the press and media who have vilified him on a continual basis. These are big influences upon the public.

Part of the blame must fall upon the IAAF and those responsible for administering drugs bans. The sport has been blighted through its recent history through such scandals. To some, the bans which have been handed out to Gatlin and others are not harsh enough. Many believe that testing positive, whatever the circumstances should mean a life ban. This has certainly got plenty of sway behind it, as some who might try and cheat would be given pause to think again.

Some former athletes reflecting on the race on Saturday night asked if this was ‘the worst possible outcome for the sport?’ Such a showpiece event going not to Bolt (or another clean athlete), but to a convicted drugs cheat certainly isn’t good for the sport and its wider audience.

Viewing figures suggest around 9 million people tuned into watch the event in Britain alone. How many fans with both a real and passing interest in athletics, young and old, would have been turned off by what they saw?

But perhaps the  booing should have been saved for the IAAF and those running the sport.

Can we forgive Gatlin? It’s hard. Whether on either occasion he meant to take performance enhancing drugs isn’t the issue. The fact that he did means that he is now seen to stand for precisely what is destroying the sport. Many believe that he and others like him shouldn’t be competing.

That said, can we respect him? We can. Justin Gatlin, since his readmittance in 2010, has been a clean athlete. His achievement at the age of 35 to run 9.92 seconds and win the World Championships is something that defies the expectations of his age and is the result of years of hard work and undoubted determination.

He is also a mentor to Saturday’s silver medallist Christian Coleman and does speak to young athletes about the importance of competing clean.

Justin Gatlin will continue to divide opinion. To many he will only be a ‘two time drugs cheat’ and never a 3 time World Champion. Maybe it’s time to forgive him?

Luke J. Harris is a Sports Historian from Canterbury Christ Church University. He is the author of ‘Britain and the Olympics 1908-1920: Perspectives on participation and identity’

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