THE sprinter Justin Gatlin is a tailor-made stand-in for the doping ills of track and field.
He served a four-year suspension after testing positive for steroids. He came back and continues to run fiercely in his 35th year, laying down the fastest times ever for a runner his age.
Last weekend in London, he spoiled the retirement run of the great Olympic champion Usain Bolt, whom some writers revere as the symbol of a clean sport. Gatlin ran 9.92 seconds in the 100 meters last Saturday night at the world championships and took the gold medal. Bolt settled for the bronze.
Fans showered Gatlin with boos; British sportswriters waxed righteous about their pantomime villain (“Gatlin is a shameless fraud” was one of the milder takes); and Sebastian Coe, president of track and field’s international governing body, was beside himself for having to award a medal to Gatlin.
“I’m not eulogistic at the thought of somebody who has served two bans in our sport walking off with one of the biggest prizes,” Coe said.
This narrative is fractured and self-righteous. Gatlin has sinned, but the outrage, particularly from those who know better, edges toward the absurd.
Let’s start with what is, by now, the standard indictment: Gatlin is a “two-time drug cheat,” with “unrepentant” added as the adjectival chaser.
This is inaccurate. His first offense was no offense at all.
In the summer of 2001, after his freshman year at the University of Tennessee, Gatlin tested positive for a very small trace of amphetamine after running as an amateur in an event sponsored by USA Track & Field. Amphetamine is an ingredient in Adderall, for which Gatlin has carried a prescription since he was 7 years old and learned he had an attention deficit disorder. He took Adderall while preparing for summer midterms three days before the race.
His decision was consistent with NCAA rules and guidance given to professional athletes. Nonetheless, Coe’s organization, the International Association of Athletics Federations, handed down a two-year ban. Gatlin appealed and got the suspension cut to a year. The grand executioners in the news corps might want to page to the decision’s conclusion:
“Mr. Gatlin neither cheated nor intended to cheat,” the appeals panel wrote. “He is certainly not a doper.”
So Gatlin is a one-time doper. In 2006 he tested positive for a steroid and was suspended for eight years, a sentence reduced to four years after he cooperated with federal investigators. He would lose four peak years and millions of dollars in earnings, a considerably tougher penalty than those meted out to athletes in pro baseball, basketball or football. (World soccer has adopted the Olympic Code and consequently levies tough penalties).
That seems a suitably stiff sentence for a first offense.
Let me now back off a step or three and interrogate my own righteousness.
A month ago I talked with American high jumper Chaunté Lowe about the moment in November when she learned she had won a bronze medal in the 2008 Olympics. The international antidoping agency, taking advantage of technological advances, retested the blood of three jumpers (two Russians and a Ukrainian) who finished ahead of her at those Games. It disqualified all three. Lowe learned of this by Facebook and felt caught between elation and sorrow, aware of opportunities lost, not least that joyous moment atop a podium.
A year ago I sat atop a mountain outside Oslo and heard two top American biathletes, Susan Dunklee and Lowell Bailey, talk about the frustration of competing to their lung-straining best and suspecting that some of the athletes a few paces ahead of them might have a chemical advantage.
These athletes work too hard to think we can just slap them on the back and murmur que será, será. They enjoy precious few years at their peak. Several of them told me they would like to see career suspensions for first doping offenses.
There is, too, the peculiar challenge presented when nations or Olympic committees cover their eyes, with all the advantages and subterfuge that implies. The US Olympic Committee, for many years in the 1980s, enabled a pervasive doping problem. Its leaders knew that American swimmers, runners and jumpers were doping with the complicity of top Olympic coaches.
The US has cracked down hard. But Russia has taken on the mantle and gone far beyond, running a state-sponsored doping program with a thuggish insistence that gives its athletes and coaches little choice. This represents an existential threat to clean sport.
I called Max Cobb, the president of US Biathlon and an insistent reformer, and asked about the question of appropriate penalties for athletes like Gatlin. He is not by temperament the sort who favors blanket lifetime suspensions, and he sees considerable mitigating factors in Gatlin’s case. He also sees a place for lifetime bans as a threat.
“If you are engaged in systematic blood manipulation, you are deliberately trying to cheat the system,” Cobb noted. “It cannot be an accident, and that’s where the option of a lifetime ban would really help.”
Track and field’s reputation as irreparably tarnished by doping may be unfair and owe paradoxically to its growing ability to ferret out offenders. The doping era may have reached its body-distorting peak before the turn of this century, when athletes from many nations imbibed all sorts of steroids. Olympians break records with less regularity now; some women’s records set in that period have stood for decades. Scientists speculate that cheating athletes now take smaller doses to avoid detection.
As for Bolt and Gatlin, too many reporters and fans remain invested in fairy-tale dichotomies. Bolt is a glorious runner and a joyous showman for the ages, and he has passed every drug test without a glitch. So writers fit him for a crown as the king of clean sport.
What, however, explains the urgency in fitting Gatlin for the crown of thorns? Gatlin is an athlete of his time and place. He finished third in the 100 meters at the 2012 London Olympics. Five of the eight men who ran that day have served doping bans. There were runners in London last weekend who had served doping suspensions and returned to competition.
The championship race in London was an old man’s affair. Gatlin won with a 9.92. Had he run that time at the world championships in Beijing in 2015, he would have finished far behind Bolt. He is tested randomly by the US Anti-Doping Agency; screeners checked his blood four times and his urine 10 times last year before the Olympics.
He passed all of those.
Age is the runner that will track Gatlin to earth. When I saw him in Oregon in May, he acknowledged mental fatigue and hamstrings and thighs that growl like old hounds.
He is a personable man; he is flawed. There’s no need to turn him into a hero. But the villain stuff plays like the cheap tricks adults use to distract from bigger problems.