Comment - Justin Gatlin is the shameless fraud who plays the system perfectly
Halfway between a cheer and a jeer is an uncomfortable groan - the sort of awkward sound British people make when they would really rather just change the subject. This is noise the London crowd made when Justin Gatlin, who has served two doping bans, stooped to receive his 100m World Championship gold medal in a ceremony apparently moved to 6.50pm to reduce booing.
Caught between disapproval and not wanting to appear impolite when a man was receiving a gong from Lord Coe, the audience saved their love for Usain Bolt, beaten into third in his last solo race. They saved it too for Jess Ennis-Hill, who finally collected the heptathlon gold she was cheated out of in Daegu in 2011. One wrong was righted, but another endures, as the debate over lifetime bans flares up again.
Officially the 100m medal ceremony was not brought forward. It was just a coincidence, then, that it took place 10 minutes before the action started. So the IAAF would have been happy to bury Bolt’s medal presentation in the 6.50pm slot? Sure they would.
Gatlin’s world title win, at 35 - and 13 years after his Olympic gold in Athens - was a kind of zombie rising from the Balco scandal in America, which claimed Marion Jones, who went to jail for perjury, Tim Montgomery and the pre-eminent coach of that era - Trevor Graham, another convicted perjurer who was banned from athletics for life.
Graham was also Gatlin’s coach, and when the New York Times visited him at home in 2009, they reported: “On the wall to his right hung a framed, autographed track suit, the one Justin Gatlin wore when he won the 100-metre gold medal at the 2004 Olympics in Athens.”
Many doping scandals have floated down track and field’s polluted river since Balco laboratories in California was found to be doling out a previously undetectable substance called THG, also known as ‘The Clear’ (Britain’s Dwain Chambers was another busted). The tide of chemical cheating has simply travelled along new routes, with Russia’s state-sanctioned doping programme the most egregious modern example.
Gatlin, though, has played a consistent tactical game to repel his critics, focusing on his first positive test in 2001 for medication he had been taking for a decade for attention deficit disorder. A two-year ban was reduced to one.
As recently as 2015, he complained: “Last time I checked, someone who takes medication for a disorder is not a doper. Other people in the sport have taken the same medication I had for ADD and only got warnings. I didn’t.” His second suspension - for eight years, later reduced to four - is less easy for him to explain away, though he has tried.
In 2006, two years after his Olympic win and one year on from his 100m-200m World Championships double in Helsinki, he announced: "I have been informed that after a relay race I ran in Kansas City on 22 April, I tested positive for testosterone or its precursors. I cannot account for these results, because I have never knowingly used any banned substance or authorised anyone to administer such a substance to me.”
In evidence Gatlin accused a disgruntled massage therapist of rubbing steroid cream into him - an allegation denied by the therapist. That flimsy defence was rejected. But not contesting the positive test served a purpose, and laid the ground for his victory over Christian Coleman and Bolt on Saturday night. It saved him from a potential lifetime ban.
Two years after an eight-year sentence was handed down, the ban was reduced to four. Even then Gatlin kicked up a fuss. "I know in my heart I haven't done anything wrong.
"I have been robbed,” he said. “I have been cheated of an opportunity to finish my career.”
The poor-me routine has not altered. Here in London he challenged reporters: ”I know you've got to have a black hat and a white hat but guys, come on. What do I do that makes me a bad boy? Do I talk bad about anybody, do I give bad gestures, don't I shake every athlete's hand, don’t I congratulate them, wish everybody good luck? That don't sound like a bad boy to me.
"I wasn't booed in 2010, 2011 or 2012 - or 13, 14 or 15 - and now I am. I'm just sitting up here, I'm a runner, I'm back in the sport, I've done my time, I've done community service. I've talked to kids, I inspire kids - that's all I can do. Society does that with people who make mistakes and I hope track and field can understand that too.”
The charge of mass moral complicity in athletics became even harder to shake off when Nike re-signed him in 2015, five years after he returned from the second of his bans. In the wake of his dud valediction here, Bolt went out of his way to support Gatlin, telling him (according to Gatlin), “you don’t deserve all these boos,” then telling journalists: “Over the years I've always said he's done his time. If he's here, it's okay. I've always respected him as a competitor. He deserves to be here, he's worked hard. I treat him like any other athlete - as a competitor.”
This nothing-to-see-here mantra will not wash with the public. They see the IAAF, the governing body, take a stance against Russia at the Rio Olympics, banning its track and field athletes, but then stalked in Bolt’s farewell solo race by the ghosts of earlier leniency. In victory, Gatlin brought the smell of old scandals from 15 years ago (and more) back to a sport that hoped his title-winning days were over.
There are many athletes here in London with positive dope tests on their dance cards. But none has beaten the system quite like Gatlin, adorned with a gold medal by Lord Coe, and symbol of the sport’s longstanding failure to match crime with punishment in the vast dark realm of pharmaceutical cheating.