Prospect Magazine: Getting over Gatlin for the greater good

We are a society which purports to endorse rehabilitation. So why do we condemn those who have fallen afoul of strict doping regulations?

Sport has no script. That’s its beauty – the uncertainty, the ecstasy, even the disappointment. So for Lord Coe, President of the International Association of Athletics Federations, to describe Saturday’s 100m men’s final as “not the perfect script,” was tonally bizarre, if nothing else. The IAAF, after all, is alleged to have run its own questionable stage-play in the recent past—controlling and covering up doping violations of certain athletes.

However the booing which greeted the race’s victor went beyond an upset script; Usain Bolt was not only beaten, but beaten by Justin Gatlin, who has twice served bans for anti-doping violations. That he now undergoes as rigorous a testing procedure as Bolt, or any other competitor, was apparently irrelevant. So was the fact that Gatlin’s bans were halved on appeal, and that he now regularly educates young athletes on the perils of doping.

Gatlin’s reception was the product of something much deeper, fuelled largely by a capricious media interested mainly in creating sensationalist, often jingoistic, sporting coverage for a narrative which suits them. The irony of Steve Cram, former 1500m world champion turned coach-cum-pundit, lounging on a sofa and explaining that “the British media, ourselves included, have educated the public a little bit about Justin Gatlin and his past,” as justification for Gatlin’s reception, was countered by eight-time world champion Michael Johnson’s reasoned response.

“Explain the difference between him and the others,” Johnson challenged, referring to those also now competing again, having formerly been convicted of anti-doping violations. These others include Johann Blake and Luvo Manyonga—the latter feted after overcoming a cocaine addiction to win long jump gold. Manyonga is considered a success story; Gatlin apparently anything but. “I think that we have done a poor job of educating,” Johnson countered. “As we created a story that was not accurate.”

No tribunal found that Justin Gatlin used performance-enhancing drugs. The circumstances surrounding the violations may appear suspicious, but when it comes to findings of fact, Gatlin has fallen foul only of the strict liability offence that any infringement brings—whether intentional, inadvertent or simply technical.

While the system punishes those such as the serial, and intentional, doper Ben Johnson, who was stripped of his Olympic gold in the 1988 men’s 100m, it punishes less cut-and-dry cases, too. The headlines scream “drug cheat,” yet Gatlin was sanctioned under the same system which stripped Alain Baxter of his downhill Olympic bronze for using an asthma inhaler, or Christine Ohruogu for a clumsy whereabouts violation. To ban Gatlin for life would mean to ban others, including perhaps innocent others, for the same period, too.

That Coe also felt the need to blame “legal systems worldwide” for the failure to instigate a life ban on Gatlin forgets that there are two sides to every coin: it is these legal systems, and lawyers, which ensure that those that do fall foul of this strict liability regime but who are then exonerated and acquitted are able to continue to participate in sport. Cyclist Lizzie Armitstead, for instance, was only able to compete at Rio after winning an appeal to overturn a ban for a whereabouts violation. More onerous still, cricketer Kusal Perera, banned for failing a drugs test, only through “the diligence of his legal team” could show that the steroid he had been accused of taking had likely “been produced naturally by the player or formed in the samples after they were provided.”

We are a society which purports to endorse rehabilitation; our prisons a system to reform, rather than punish. Yet we are also a society which now deems it acceptable to publicly admonish, to humiliate another human being for having the audacity to take to the stage once more, reformed and, to our knowledge, clean.

No one starts their careers intending to dope. Striving to gain an advantage is human instinct at the most basic level. As financial incentives increase, the polarisation between the haves and have nots widens, and a progressively image-conscious, attention-deficit society demands bigger and better performances, the temptation to achieve success, legal or otherwise, increases too. The risk of failure, financially, emotionally, patriotically even, will to some athletes inevitably outweigh other factors—including fear of getting caught.

Every athlete looks for ways to enhance performance, whether necking cans of caffeinated energy drinks immediately before a race, or investing inordinate amounts of money into the advanced technology that propelled Team GB’s track cyclists to Rio glory. These, too, create an unfair advantage—yet the line between legal, illegal, hero and villain, is a fuzzy and often arbitrary one.

There is sympathy for any athlete who calls for life bans and stricter punishments, as they alone are the immediate victims, deprived of a fair chance by those that dope. Yet to combat doping, match-fixing, or indeed any of the corruption that afflicts sport in this “zero tolerance” way is to forget the wider picture—and to cast athletes, humans, beyond forgiveness.

Gatlin winning was, in many people’s eyes, athletics’ loss, despite the controlled condition in which he performed this feat. However, if this was the moment which ignites a wider discussion, a healthy, evidence-based debate bringing consistent, universal reform on drug taking in sport, then it was long overdue.

• A version of this article was originally published in Prospect Magazine on 8 August 2017 here. 

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