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Gatlin is not a two-time drug cheat

Zaheer Clarke

Sunday, August 13, 2017

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Since August 2008 Usain Bolt has been portrayed as the saviour of athletics, and its villains, on the contrary, are the drug cheats who have buckled the sport to its knees with scandal after scandal. In the early 2000s several sports, including track and field, suffered the echoes of doping.

Interestingly, the most notorious of these reverberations was the BALCO (Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative) doping scandal, which impugned the once stellar careers and performances of Marion Jones, Tim Montgomery, Barry Bonds, Dwain Chambers, and several others. However, with Bolt's otherworldly performances as a pro starting in 2008 — backed by squeaky-clean test results — the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), International Olympic Committee (IOC), and the media had finally found an athlete they could rely on. In the opinion of many, Bolt has lifted the sport from a period of doping abyss into an era of utopian bliss.

Unfortunately, with Russian athletes being banned last year because of alleged State-sponsored doping, the villains have multiplied exponentially. As well, the haunting ghosts of the East German doping programme, which hung over athletics during the 1970s and the 1980s, have seemingly resurrected.

Despite all of this, today the often ill-portrayed villain of doping in track and field is not a Russian or an East German. The chief villain has been deemed to be American Justin Gatlin — the antithesis of Bolt and his main rival since his return from suspension in 2010.

Prior to 2006, when Gatlin tested positive for testosterone, he was the reigning Olympic champion in the 100m, the reigning world champion in the 100m and the 200m, and the former world indoor champion in the 60m. In addition, in 2006 he had equalled Asafa Powell's then 100m world record of 9.77secs in a blistering run in Doha, Qatar. Unfortunately, for Gatlin, the record was later annulled after his positive drug test for testosterone. Without any question, Gatlin was and, years later, still is an exceptional athlete. However, the question often asked is: Where did it all go wrong for him?

Gatlin is often demonised in the media as a “two-time drug cheat” after failing drug tests twice in his career — first in 2001 and second in 2006. However, is he really a two-time drug cheat? Did he cheat or try to cheat the system? Is this characterisation fair, and has proper insight been given to the culpability of his first offence or the possibility of his innocence in his second infraction? Let us look at some uncontested facts on Gatlin.

Truthfully, a 19-year-old Gatlin tested positive for amphetamines in his first-ever IAAF event in June 2001 while attending summer school at the University of Tennessee. Interestingly, Gatlin was diagnosed — from as early as age nine — with a condition that affected his ability to learn — attention deficit disorder. An international group of medical experts confirmed this, and Gatlin was on “required and appropriate” medication for over a 10-year period in order “to be successful in school”. Unfortunately, one of those medications, Adderall, which he was prescribed to him from the age of 14 onwards, and which was known to his doctors at the University of Tennessee, contained the banned amphetamines.

Now, similar to other stimulants which some Jamaican athletes have tested positive for — think Asafa Powell, Sherone Simpson, Nesta Carter, Yohan Blake, and others — in 2001 amphetamines were allowed for out-of-competition use but prohibited in-competition. Under the advice of the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), at the time, athletes who were on medications for ADD were advised to discontinue their medications prior to competition. In 2001, Gatlin did so three days before the start of his participation at the USATF Junior National Championships on June 16 and 17. Nevertheless, small amounts were detected in his sample on June 16, and even smaller amounts on June 17, which according to the American Arbitration Association (AAA), was consistent with discontinued use.

The AAA panel, also known as the North American Court of Arbitration for Sport, is a designated agency responsible for the administration and resolution of amateur sports dispute, such as the eligibility of athletes and doping infractions. In its decision, the AAA panel said of Gatlin in 2001, “He certainly is not a doper,” and characterised his inadvertent violation as a '“technical” or a “paperwork” violation.

The panel had said in its decision that it is “very concerned that Mr Gatlin's reputation not be unnecessarily tarnished as a result of this decision. Anti-doping rules […] in that sometimes there are adverse consequences, even when an athlete is not at fault. The panel specifically notes that, in this case, Mr Gatlin neither cheated nor did he intend to cheat. He did not intend to enhance his performance nor, given his medical condition, did his medication, in fact, enhance his performance… The panel requires that this fact be made clear in any public release describing or relating to this decision.”

Based on these findings by the panel, the subsequent labelling of Gatlin as a “two-time drug cheat” is unfair and unjust. The continuous characterisation by the media and others is potentially libellous and the very concerns of the AAA panel in 2001 for Gatlin's reputation have been actualised.

The IAAF rules in 2011 required that the panel impose a sanction of two years on Gatlin for this first offence regardless of any mitigating circumstances. There was no provision at that time for a finding of “no fault” or of “no significant fault.” The IAAF rules did provide, however, that in the case of “exceptional circumstances” an athlete may apply to the IAAF Council for reinstatement only after the imposition of a two-year ban and before the two-year period of ineligibility expired.

Under IAAF rules then, only the IAAF Council could make a finding of facts and a decision regarding “exceptional circumstances”. Hence, the panel sent Gatlin's case to the IAAF because of the lacuna in the rules. The IAAF instantly found that exceptional circumstances existed and immediately granted Gatlin's reinstatement.

As the Court of Arbitration for Sport said in 2008, the decision by the panel to first impose the two-year ban in 2001 was the “quickest and smoothest way” to get Gatlin “back on track” under the rules: a ban first, then reinstatement.

Unconscionably, the IAAF had insisted, in 2002, that Gatlin had committed a doping offence after issuing the reinstatement. They further indicated that they “[would] not grant applications for athletes with ADD who seek an exemption on medical grounds to use amphetamines during competition”. In other words, even though Gatlin was on prescription medication, stopped taking his medications before the meet, and even if he listed his medications and filled out a Therapeutic Use Exemption, he would still have been guilty of a doping offence as long as they found the stimulant in his system.

In addition to its ruling, the IAAF stated, “Athletes requiring amphetamine medication for the treatment of ADD must ensure that this medicine is taken under close medical supervision to ensure that they do not compete under the performance-enhancing influence of amphetamines.”

Therefore, it seems a 19-year-old Gatlin was expected to ascertain via his own contracted medical and anti-doping team that three days was an insufficient time for the medication to clear his system. Inexplicably, he was expected to do all this so that he would not fail his first test at his first IAAF track meet as a teenager.

On the other hand, there can be no denying Gatlin's positive test for exogenous testosterone in 2006. Up to his suspension in 2006, according to Gatlin, the 34 clean tests before and after that positive from April 2006 hinted at sabotage. Unfortunately, he failed to prove his theory of sabotage definitively and could not prove if the source of the hormone was from his physiotherapist, his assistant coach, or the food supplements he was taking at the time. Similarly, he failed to disprove that he, indeed, was not the very source of the testosterone. Hence, there can be no disputing the ban imposed by the IAAF.

However, since his return in 2010, Gatlin has been one of the most tested athletes. Outside of the tests contracted by the IAAF and the IOC, USADA has conducted 90 tests on Justin Gatlin since his return in 2010, with 79 of those since 2012. The records of the IAAF show that they have tested him over four times in each of the past two years, similar to Bolt. And guess what, he has been clean, so far.

Interestingly, after years of unfair accusations and labels, on August 5, 2017, a just — or unjust — God finally allowed Gatlin — the villain — to overcome the saviour, Usain Bolt, in an epic clash in London. Like Job in the Bible, Gatlin had suffered enough. It was time for his redemption and restoration.

Trust me, we cannot love God, love Bolt, and hate Justin Gatlin. If we do, it means we are either perfect or we forever hate ourselves for any mistakes we have made. And, if the latter is true, then we are beyond redemption. Whatever it may be, let's at least get some things straight, Gatlin is a one-time drug cheat, and even that we are not absolutely sure about.

Zaheer E Clarke is a sports analyst, lecturer, and author of the award-winning blog Zaheer's Facts, Lies and Statistics. Send comments to the Observer or zaheer.clarke@gmail.com.

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