Come August, the Bird’s Nest Stadium in Beijing could potentially play host to one of the saddest moments in recent athletics history; Justin Gatlin winning 100 metre gold at the world athletics championships.
The American sprinter returned from a second drugs ban in 2010 and since then has defied biology by running faster than ever. This culminated in Gatlin producing an admittedly impressive time of 9.74 seconds at the first Diamond League meeting of the season in Doha. The time represents a personal best (PB) for the US athlete and is the quickest time ever for a 100m by a man over 30. It’s also the joint sixth quickest time ever and makes him the current fastest man in the world as well as the clear favourite to claim the world championship crown in Beijing.
That being said, it’s hard to look upon Gatlin’s improving performance without being sceptical given his controversial past. He was first banned from athletics in 2001 after amphetamine was found in his system. Gatlin insisted the illegal substance in question was a result of prescribed medication he took for attention deficit disorder (ADD) and his ban was subsequently reduced on appeal.
Similarly, after winning Olympic and world gold in 2004 and 2005 respectively, Gatlin tested positive for testosterone in 2006 and accepted an eight-year ban. However, his ban was again reduced, to four years, due to Gatlin’s cooperation with the doping authorities and claims that he had been sabotaged by disgruntled massage therapist Christopher Whetstine. Gatlin’s camp claimed Whetstine purposely rubbed a cream containing testosterone into the athlete’s buttocks as revenge for being fired from their team.
It’s also important to bear in mind that during this time Gatlin was coached by Trevor Graham, who now possesses a lifetime ban from coaching following a number of his athletes testing positive for banned substances. Marion Jones, Tim Montgomery, Shawn Crawford and Antonio Pettigrew were just some of Graham’s athletes who failed tests and were given bans. Therefore it’s apparent why many people aren’t impressed but rather suspicious of Gatlin’s form since his return.
What’s also interesting when looking at Gatlin’s times over 100m is that he’s now faster than around the time he was found guilty of doping in 2006. In 2004 his season’s best (SB) was 9.85 seconds and in 2005 it was 9.88 – Gatlin was 22 and 23 years-old during these seasons. Compare that to the times he has produced since returning in 2010, particularly since 2012, and the improvement in his performance is evident. Why take banned substances if you’re able to run faster times without them?
Compare the figures above to those of fellow American sprinter Maurice Greene, who ran his fastest 100m times during his mid-20s; the age most consider sprinters to be in their prime.
The above graph highlights that his peak period was from 1997 to 2004 before he started to lose pace in 2005 at the age of 29. He too was an Olympic and world champion, but the difference between him and Gatlin is that Greene was never found to be taking illegal substances. The two sets of figures couldn’t be more contrasting and there is no doubt that Greene’s progression is a significantly more common path for sprinters than Gatlin’s.
That said it’s important to point out that some athletes do thrive later into their careers. The likes of Canada’s Bruny Surin (9.84) and GB’s Linford Christie (9.87) both ran under the 10 second mark in their 30s. Similarly, the great Michael Johnson set his 400 metre world record (43.18) in 1999 when he was 31.
Although there is a clear difference between Johnson’s progression through the years compared to Gatlin’s.
Yes it’s a different event, but there is no questioning that Johnson consistently ran under the 44 second mark with ease and as a consequence it’s less surprising that he was still performing at his peak in his 30s. In essence, Johnson may have broken the world record in his 30s, but there was always a chance he could given his calibre and consistent form.
Another interesting aspect to explore is Justin Gatlin’s 200 metre times. Prior to 2014 he had never, legally, dipped under the all-important 20 second mark over the distance. Not only did he break 20 seconds last season, he smashed it, running 19.68. This is noticeably quicker than any time he ran in 2005 – the year in which he won the 200m world title in Helsinki.
Again it begs the question of why would you take illegal substances if you can run significantly quicker without them and at an older age?
There are numerous unanswered questions regarding drug abuse in sport. Many have considered the possibility that certain substances may have long-lasting effects on athletes even after they have left the bloodstream. There is also a strong possibility that athletes have found new ways to cheat which have yet to be discovered by world doping authorities.
You can’t help but feel that just as the IAAF have found the most recent answers on illegal substances Gatlin and others may have changed the question and the name of the game completely.
Seeing Gatlin succeeding is a bitter pill to swallow for many in the athletics world given his complete and utter refusal to apologise for any wrong-doing. His current coach, Dennis Mitchell, also has a history with drugs and after being caught with high levels of testosterone in his body famously claimed that it was the result of having “five bottles of beer and sex with his wife at least four times – it was her birthday, the lady deserved a treat.” This hardly reassures athletics fans that Gatlin is repentant about his past.
He’s come back into the limelight as if nothing happened along with the likes of Tyson Gay and Asafa Powell. There is also no mention of Gatlin’s substance abuse or subsequent bans on the USA Track and Field website and he has recently been resigned by Nike.
There have to be stricter rules regarding cheating in athletics; being cooperative with doping authorities should not automatically result in reduced bans. The credibility of athletics has already taken a severe bashing; surely bans should be increased to make examples of cheating athletes rather than reduced.
The possibility of Gatlin winning gold in Beijing is more likely than ever. Usain Bolt only recently returned to action with an uninspiring 200m victory in the Czech Republic, although running conditions were far from ideal. If the American is to beat the Lightning Bolt at a major championship then this is definitely his best chance to date.
Usually such fierce competition would be met with great anticipation and excitement, but you can’t help but feel Gatlin’s tainted past extinguishes both of those feelings. Instead they are replaced with a feeling that the upcoming battle between Bolt and Gatlin is symbolic of the ultimate face off between good and evil. There is no doubt the majority will be wanting Bolt to be the saviour of sprinting once again.
Take Bolt out of the equation and the starting line-up for the world championship 100m final in Beijing could make for some seriously grim reading. Asafa Powell, Tyson Gay and Mike Rodgers are all likely finalists and have all served drug bans – looks like we could have another dirty final on our hands.