Can you forgive and forget? Justin Gatlin asks that of his sport every time he competes.
Not with words, because saying “sorry” time and again for two doping positives is not his style. But with each blistering sprint, the fastest man this year has tested the tolerance for forgiveness in track and field and among those who want to believe in it.
Once a doper, always a doper? The rules of sport say not. They’re nuanced and allow second chances. Exceptionally, Gatlin got a third chance, too.
Testing positive first for amphetamine and then for testosterone could, at worse, have seen the 2004 Olympic sprint champion barred for life as a repeat offender. But arbitrators decided Gatlin didn’t take amphetamine to cheat in 2001 but because doctors prescribed it to treat attention deficit disorder first diagnosed when he was aged 9.
That mitigating factor earned him some leniency when he tested positive again in 2006, although the male hormone found this time was a definite performance-enhancer, abused by dopers in sport to build muscle and aid recovery. The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency and track and field’s governing body, the IAAF, sought an eight-year ban. The American sprinter got and served four.
But forgiveness can’t be legislated. It’s a feeling, deeply personal. Ask 10 people and you’ll get as many different arguments for why ex-dopers should or shouldn’t be allowed back. And it’s easier to be magnanimous, to argue for second chances and redemption, if you are not an athlete or are a reformed doper yourself. Much harder, impossible even, for those who know they are clean and that victories, medals, money and fame were stolen from them by competitors taking pharmaceutical shortcuts.
But without forgiveness there also is no trust. And without trust, sporting performances can’t be enjoyed or admired. Those who can’t forgive Gatlin won’t have drawn one iota of pleasure in seeing him run faster this year than ever. He won all 18 races he entered, ending the season undefeated. Of the 10 fastest times over 100 meters in 2014, Gatlin ran seven of them. His best, also a world best this year, of 9.77 seconds has only ever been bettered by Usain Bolt, Tyson Gay, Yohan Blake and Asafa Powell. Gatlin also was repeatedly drug-tested, including eight times by the USADA alone.
To be fair on Gatlin, he is far from being the only athlete who forces sports fans to wrestle with forgiveness. But he’s at the center of that debate now, because his exceptional performances have put him in the mix for a prestigious athlete of the year award organized by the IAAF.
There was originally a 10-man list of nominees. But Olympic discus champion Robert Harting took himself off it because Gatlin was on it.
“It’s insulting for me and my fans,” the German told Spiegel magazine.
Two French nominees, race walker Yohann Diniz and pole vaulter Renaud Lavillenie, also spoke against Gatlin’s inclusion but haven’t shown Harting’s strength of conviction and remain on the list.
It sends confused messages for track and field to be hunting for drug offenders with one hand and putting them up for awards with the other. Discus athlete Sandra Perkovic is on the women’s list despite her six-month ban in 2011 for positive tests for methylhexanamine, a banned stimulant she blamed on an energy drink.
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