Justin Gatlin last summer before his first competitive race after serving a four-year doping ban.
Gatlin Looking to Outrun Competition and Suspicions
By JERÉ LONGMAN
New York Times
April 30, 2011
Few in the crowd of 48,531 seemed to recognize Justin Gatlin on Saturday as he stepped onto the track at the Penn Relays. He wore golden spikes, but there was no announcement that he had been the Olympic champion at 100 meters in 2004. No mention that this was his first major meet since he returned from a four-year ban for doping.
“I almost felt like I was coming to tears, thankful to come back and compete with my peers and to be welcomed by the crowd,” Gatlin, 29, said, perhaps sensing more of an embrace than actually occurred or perhaps just relieved not to hear any boos.
He seemed a bit heavy, and heavy-legged, while running a rare leadoff leg in the 4x100-meter relay in the USA vs. the World competition. Gatlin’s team struggled with baton exchanges and finished third to a Jamaican squad that included Asafa Powell, a former world record holder in the 100.
Even now, five years after testing positive for a banned substance, Gatlin seems in denial about the incident that disgraced his career. He continues to maintain that he never knowingly doped, that his former massage therapist sabotaged him by rubbing a testosterone-like cream onto his legs in 2006.
It is a variation of Barry Bonds’s flaxseed oil defense, and just as unlikely to be true. The masseur denied any subterfuge. And given that Gatlin’s coach, Trevor Graham, and seven other athletes in their former training group, including Marion Jones, were barred from the sport in the Balco scandal, it seems highly improbable that Gatlin was an innocent wronged.
Still, he persists in saying so. “I’ve always stuck by my story,” Gatlin said. “I’m just going to tell the truth. That’s the way I was raised. If I did it, I would have said it.”
People are forgiving. Andy Pettitte and Jason Giambi issued apologies about doping in baseball, and their transgressions were quickly absolved. Even without such an admission, Gatlin has been welcomed back into the track world, with the exception of some meet promoters who have ignored him. He has served his penalty, and it is hard to argue that he does not deserve a chance to run again.
“He has done his time,” Powell said. “I have nothing bad to say.”
In most cases of a banned American sprinter returning to the sport, “We would essentially ignore them and pretend they didn’t exist,” said Jill Geer, a spokeswoman for USA Track and Field.
But Gatlin cooperated with the United States Anti-Doping Agency and has spoken to children about taking responsibility for their actions. While he has not admitted to purposely taking a banned substance, Geer said, he has “taken responsibility for the fact that it was in his system.”
There are serious questions to be asked about doping, about whether athletes are unfairly persecuted, and prosecuted, when there is so much drug use in the larger society, therapeutic and otherwise. Fans demand that athletes run fast and set records, and are shocked when they use any means necessary.
Still, it would be useful for Gatlin to come clean, not for moral reasons, but just to set the record straight.
“It’s a very humbling experience to have to present yourself in front of all these people who are so critical and skeptical of what it is you’re going to do,” said Lauryn Williams, the American sprinter who won silver in the 100 at the 2004 Athens Games.
In his comeback, Gatlin is seeking to make the United States team in the 100 and 200 meters and the 4x100-meter relay at the world track and field championships in late August in South Korea and at the 2012 London Olympics. Doping bans have destroyed many elite sprinting careers, from Ben Johnson to Marion Jones. And since Gatlin was barred, the sprinting world has been turned upside down by Usain Bolt of Jamaica, who has lowered the world record in the 100 to 9.58 and the 200 to 19.19.
Gatlin ran 9.77 and 19.86 before being barred, but no faster than 10.09 and 20.36 since returning to the track last summer. Even his best races were far slower than those of the fastest current American, Tyson Gay, who has posted times of 9.69 and 19.58. Still, Gatlin needs to finish only third at the United States championships to qualify for the worlds and the Olympics.
And he has the recovered career of Britain’s top sprinter, Dwain Chambers, to convince himself that a post-doping comeback is possible, although Chambers remains barred from the Olympics by UK Athletics.
“I feel like he has plenty of time and plenty of youth to come out and prove that hey, track world, this is what you’ve been missing,” said Shawn Crawford, the 2004 Olympic champion at the 200 meters and a relay partner of Gatlin’s on Saturday.
Still, even if he outruns the competition, Gatlin might find it impossible to escape suspicion.
“If he runs as fast as he did before, people will think he must be doping now,” Geer said. “If he doesn’t run as fast as he did in the past, people will say that was evidence that he really was doping and cheating. He realizes it’s a tough spot.”