Monday 25 September 2017

It's not good enough for Usain Bolt to bat away doping questions

American Justin Gatlin (second left) stretches his arms out to celebrate his victory in the 100m final at the World Championships on Saturday. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
American Justin Gatlin (second left) stretches his arms out to celebrate his victory in the 100m final at the World Championships on Saturday. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Cathal Dennehy

Question: how would you react to a doping question if you're a clean athlete? Would you view it as an affront, a wolf of an accusation dressed up as a sheepish question, and go on the offensive against whoever had the audacity to ask it?

Or would you welcome it with open arms, embracing the opportunity to show the world just how much you hate doping, the cancer that has eaten away at the sport you love?

Christian Coleman (silver), Gatlin (gold) and Usain Bolt (bronze) pose with medals in London yesterday. Photo: Reuters
Christian Coleman (silver), Gatlin (gold) and Usain Bolt (bronze) pose with medals in London yesterday. Photo: Reuters

Think about that before you think about this:

It's Saturday night in the London Stadium and Justin Gatlin has shown up to Usain Bolt's farewell party, cut the music, and in 9.92 seconds flipped the atmosphere from festival to funeral.

In what most expected to be a facile victory, Bolt was beaten into third by two Americans, Christian Coleman - 21, a college kid with no past to arouse suspicion and Gatlin, 35, an athlete who is a perfectly nice guy until he runs into any questions about his past.

Gatlin has twice been banned for doping, although it should be highlighted that the first case appeared an innocent mistake.

The second, though, was for heavy-duty stuff, testosterone, which he still blames on sabotage by a massage therapist.

Since his ban in 2006, he has never publicly acknowledged any responsibility, or apologised to the fans or rivals he swindled out of money and medals. And why would he?

Teary-eyed

After all, he is from America, the land of Lance and A-Rod, where drugs are just a part of professional sport and you can find absolution for the sins of doping with a teary-eyed interview to a talk-show host.

An hour after the men's 100m final, we waited for the medallists, keen to hear their thoughts on what just happened. It had been won in 9.92 by Gatlin, with the minor medals taken in 9.94 and 9.95, times which one journalist couldn't help wonder about.

She was French, mid-20s, and midway through the packed press conference, she raised her hand to ask a legitimate question:

"The marks in general were much slower than the last edition of the world championships and I'd like to know from you guys if you think there is any kind of relationship (with) a stronger anti-doping control."

It was a query with good foundation. At the last edition in 2015, there were 21 sub-10-second clockings, but only 10 here.

She also may have wondered if the IAAF implementing a 'steroid passport' in 2013 as part of its anti-doping programme had led to the regression.

These days, instead of needing to detect actual banned substances in an athlete's urine, simple fluctuations in natural levels can be deemed enough to warrant a doping ban.

Bolt moved forward to the microphone, his face a mixture of shock and scorn: "Whoa, whoa, what's she saying?"

Thinking he had misheard, she started to explain again, but was soon cut off. "I heard you," added Bolt, "but what?"

She asked again, explaining that there had been a clear slowing in times and that she wanted to know if it was related to better anti-doping.

Bolt, clearly offended, sat forward again: "First of all, everyone up here takes that as very disrespectful," he said, before complimenting Gatlin and Coleman and explaining that slower times can be explained by a variety of factors, such as injury and negative wind. At the end, he sat back, shook his head and let out an audible "wow".

Then Gatlin sat up: "As athletes, regardless of what the sport is, we're human beings. We work hard. We train every day as you are all sitting typing on your computers. Of course, sometimes times are not going to be the best. We push ourselves to be the best and tonight, we made it the most exciting race you've probably seen all year, so I don't think it's an algorithm to an anti-doping issue."

Though Bolt has had no issue criticising dopers such as Tyson Gay in the past, Gatlin has always curiously escaped his ire. "He's an excellent person," he said this time.

Where was his anger, the incensed rage an athlete should feel when beaten by a twice-banned drug cheat who had returned to the top of the world at the age of 35?

Yesterday morning, shortly after his heat of the 400m hurdles, I asked Thomas Barr about the 100m final, how he felt about the race and the British crowd booing Gatlin.

Answer

"The fact Gatlin had two doping bans, he shouldn't be in the sport," Barr said. "But at the same time, there's other people out there that have cheated and are cheating and they're not getting booed.

"I don't feel for him for what he did, but I felt for him (getting different treatment to other dopers). People just want that villain, Batman and Joker, and in some ways the sport needs it."

It was a refreshingly nuanced answer from someone aware that the problems in his sport run deeper than a single scoundrel, and after saying it Barr walked off in silence.

It was in stark contrast to the round of applause from journalists that sent the fastest men in the world on their way on Saturday night.

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