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Once again, track & field's problems overshadow Bolt-Gatlin showdown

Justin Gatlin's name comes up in every Olympics doping conversation, but track and field's problem with drugs transcends just one athlete—or one race.

RIO DE JANEIRO — Storm clouds are gathering in the distance. You can almost hear the thunder. On Sunday night at the Rio Olympic Stadium, Usain Bolt of Jamaica—the Samba-dancing, Snapchatting, finish-line-posing, living, breathing heart and soul of Olympic track and field—will try to win his third consecutive 100-meter gold medal and most assuredly touch off a celebration that will make the world feel much better about the Games than they had just 10 seconds earlier. (This would also be true if the Games were in Sydney or London, but the needle will move further here, where the Games have struggled along.) The sprinter with the best chance of beating Bolt is 34-year-old Justin Gatlin of the United States. If Gatlin wins—and make no mistake, Gatlin can win—the reaction will be decidedly different, somewhere between disappointment and panic in the streets.

You know why. But here it is, in a nutshell: Bolt is one of most popular athletes on the planet. He leaves us awestruck when he competes and jubilant afterward. His race is our race; his party is our party. He makes us speechless and then makes us cry out in amazement. Gatlin is a very fast sprinter, too; he won his Olympic gold medal before Bolt won any of his. But Gatlin tested positive for testosterone or its precursors a decade ago and therefore is seen as the embodiment of all that’s wrong in track and field and the Olympics and these Olympics most of all, because the specter of doping has hung over Rio since weeks before the torch was lit.

When Bolt races Gatlin, the race is seen as a distillation of all the clean-or-not-clean drama that permeates Olympic sports. If Bolt wins, sports are safe. If Gatlin wins, sports are doomed. If Bolt wins, it shows that a clean athlete can be transcendent. If Gatlin wins, it means that cheating has been rewarded with medals, money and fame. This is the exactly the situation that existed a year ago, when Bolt raced Gatlin the world championships in Beijing. In advance of that race, I wrote:

So this is the desperation level in track and field: One race of 100 meters that unfolds in something less than 10 seconds is expected by its outcome—one man or another crossing the line first—to somehow bring a measure of superficial resolution to a wildly complex and decades-old PED problem and either send the sport forward into a sunny and promising future or throw it into a deep hole of suspicion and disregard from which it might never emerge whole. This is a lot to ask of a footrace.

Much the same situation exists today. There are subtle differences: In 2015, Gatlin was clearly the fastest man in the world. He had run the 100 meters in a personal and world season’s best of 9.74 seconds, while Bolt, per usual, had struggled with ongoing low back and hamstring problems. Then Bolt almost fell on his semifinal. There was plenty of reason to think that Gatlin would leave the stadium with a gold medal around his neck, and Bolt with no better than silver. This year Gatlin’s time of 9.80 seconds to win the U.S. Olympic Trials is the fastest time in the world. Bolt’s best is the 9.88 he ran, while nearly falling down twice, at a meet in Kingston, Jamaica, on June 11. He hasn’t run a 100-meter final since and pulled out of the Jamaica Olympic Trials on July 1 with those same back and hamstring problems. He did run a 200-meter on July 22. He’s probably just fine, or maybe even finer than that. Let’s hope he’s fine. We want to see the show.


But a year later Gatlin arrives in Rio and finds the landscape appreciably more charged. This one goes to 11. Russians have been banned, and reinstated. (Although the country’s track team is out, excepting one, U.S.-based athletes.) The pool has boiled with naked resentment of drugged and possibly drugged athletes, swimmers afraid to point (or wag) fingers at opponents. (More on this.)

On Friday at the Olympic Stadium, just two hours after the opening of track and field competition, Almaz Ayana of Ethiopia won the gold medal in the women’s 10,000 meters in a world-record time of 29:17.45. The record Ayana broke, by a whopping 14.33 seconds, was set by Wang Junxia of China in 1993. Wang was part of a training group, many of whose members have admitted systemic doping. In another time, a towering world record like Ayana’s might have been cause for widespread celebration. Instead, there is a sort of uncertain silence and much skepticism. Ethiopia is currently an IAAF mandate to conduct more of out-of-competition drug tests or be dropped from further Olympics.

And Justin Gatlin, sitting in the Olympic Village, has his name dropped whenever a journalist, athlete or British Nobleman sees fit to encapsulate the terrible state of worldwide doping control.

On Monday night, 19-year-old U.S. swimmer Lilly King won the gold medal in the 100-meter breaststroke and was asked late in a very tense press conference to describe her feelings about Gatlin’s presence on the U.S. Olympic team. “Do I think people who have been caught for doping offenses should be on the team?” she said. “No, they shouldn’t.” O.K., King is very popular right now for wagging her finger at silver medalist Yulia Efimova of Russia, who has two drug bans, but was reinstated for the Games, and saying things like this, to David Woods of the Indianapolis Star, “It’s incredible. You know, just winning a gold medal, but knowing I did it clean.”

(An aside here: having covered Olympic sports for more than two decades, there are two things that tell me nothing about whether an athlete is clean: 1. A clean drug-testing record and 2. The willingness to stand up and proclaim him- or herself clean. Those things have been shown to mean nothing.)

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With regard to Gatlin, a more appropriate response from King might have been: “I am a swimmer. You’re asking me about a track and field athlete. I really don’t know anything about his situation.” But King is a feisty, competitive teenager. She was worked up and a journalist fed her some raw meat. More importantly, Gatlin is a convenient punching bag.

The next afternoon, a panel of U.S. track and field athletes that included defending gold medalists Allyson Felix and Christian Taylor, was asked by a journalist if athletes who been caught doping should be suspended for life. Both Felix and Taylor answered with the same phrase: “The rules are the rules,” a disappointing non-answer from two smart, veteran athletes that sounded rehearsed. And also Wednesday afternoon, Lord Sebastian Coe, president of track and field’s international governing body, was asked by a Russian journalist about the unfairness of Gatlin’s participation, while Russian pole-vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva sits home as a part of the blanket ban, despite never having tested positive. Coe’s answer: “Gatlin is eligible to compete. We’ve talked about life bans. Yes, I would like to see life bans, but that’s not been possible.”

At the end of that same press conference, Coe was reminded that a year ago, prior to the Rio worlds, he said that he hoped Bolt would defeat Gatlin, and asked if he felt the same way about the Rio 100-meter final. Coe said, “The issue of Justin Gatlin in a way is clear to me. I can’t change my view on that, but he is eligible to compete and he should be accorded the same courtesy that any athlete within those codes and those rules is accorded.” We’ll put aside for the rest of this column the reality that Coe was a high-ranking official in an organization that tacitly condoned the Russian doping—and many of forms of—corruption. Glass, meet house.

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​Gatlin responded in an interview with the Associated Press: “ At the end of the day, the time has been served,” Gatlin said. “I’ve dealt with that punishment. I’ve moved forward.” This has been Gatlin’s standard, and perfectly acceptable, response for several years. His return to competition was a major topic in 2012, when he won a bronze medal in London, behind Bolt and Yohan Blake, also from Jamaica. It was a major topic again last year, when Gatlin began to run very fast at the age of 33. Faster, by far, than any other 33-year-old man (or all but four men of any age). Gatlin has clearly grown tired of a topic that might be new to, for example, Lilly King, but must seem very old to Gatlin.

Deep breath. Here are the basics. Gatlin is often referred to as a “two-time drug cheat.” That’s because in June 2001, when Gatlin was a 19-year-old freshman at Tennessee (the same as Lilly King is now), he tested positive for amphetamines, the result of Ritalin has been taking since early child for ADD/ADHD. He was given a two-year ban that was reduced to one year because IAAF believed that Gatlin’s was a “completely inadvertent, unintentional violation.” It shouldn’t count.

The violation in 2006 is a different story. Just weeks after breaking the world record in Qatar, Gatlin tested positive for testosterone or its precursors. A long bureaucratic battle ensued that included Gatlin’s team blaming sabotage by an embattled massage therapist. Ultimately Gatlin was suspended for eight years, but that suspension was reduced to four years when Gatlin assisted USADA in investigating Gatlin’s former coach, Trevor Graham, who eventually received a lifetime ban.

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In the track world, the particulars and the ethics of Gatlin’s case have been debated more than anything that’s happened on the track in the same time period. The closest thing to truth is this: Somebody did something to somebody. Maybe the massage therapist did something to Gatlin. Maybe the coach did something to the massage therapist, who did something to Gatlin. Maybe Gatlin did something to himself. That something was against the rules. Gatlin paid a cost that can be measured in millions of dollars.

He came back in 2010 fat, broke and slow. His best time that year was 10.09. I wrote a column that said we should leave the guy alone. Other people said the same thing. He was a harmless ex-doper. But then Gatlin started to improve. He ran 9.95 in 2011 and 9.79 in the Olympic final, nearly as fast as he had run before his suspension. (His best was 9.76). Last year’s 9.74 was a personal record at 33. Nobody wanted to leave him alone anymore. “Everything was cool when I came back running 10.09,” Gatlin told me in an interview in June of 2015. “Now that I’m running some of the fastest times in history, people are uncomfortable.” Damn right they were uncomfortable.

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Journalists began citing a study released in the fall of 2016 that athletes who use steroids could experience benefits for up to a decade. Gatlin never denied that he had steroids in his body one time, but told me last summer, “I was never a steroid user at all, at least not knowingly. There was one incident, a situation that was not my fault. I was never involved in what people call long-term steroid use.” Also, that decade is up. Gatlin was caught 10 years ago, when Stephen Curry was a freshman at Davidson. If you think he’s doping now, because he’s running fast at 34, that’s a valid discussion. (It’s always a valid discussion with fast sprinters.) But not the one that’s been seized upon here in Rio.

When I interviewed Bolt last spring for a Sports Illustrated cover story, I asked him, just for fun, to fill an eight-lane 100-meter race with opponents from anywhere in history. The first name he mentioned was Maurice Greene, the U.S. 2000 Olympic gold medalist. The second was Yohan Blake, his training partner and the 2012 silver medalist. The third was Justin Gatlin.


Back to 2016. It’s become very popular to suggest that the solution for doping is to assess lifetime bans to any athletes who test positive. The thinking is that this would serve as a deterrent and also, secondarily, make people feel good in much the same way that harsh NCAA penalties make them feel that we’ll somehow get back to the days when student-athletes played college sports. To which I say, sure, knock yourselves out. I don’t for a second believe that lifetime bans are going to stop people from doping or make drug-testing any better than the dumpster fire it’s always been.

But none of that applies to Justin Gatlin. He was caught breaking rules in 2006 and served a punishment that was in place at the time. The IOC tried to ban Russians who had previously doped and that attempt was rejected by the Court of Arbitration for Sport, just as a similar attempt was rejected in 2011. Even Lord Coe said Wednesday in Rio that he supports lifetime bans, but that the IAAF’s legal team hasn’t been able to come up with a plan that will withstand challenges.

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Some people find it embarrassing that Gatlin inconveniences the narrative by continuing to compete and run fast. The narrative is already inconvenient; Gatlin is just a small piece. The doping problem in track and field—and in many Olympic sports—is bigger by 100 times than Justin Gatlin. The solutions lie not in taking a verbal or social media hammer to a single athlete. The solutions are much more difficult: Better drug testing, better oversight of national doping control systems. (See: Not only Russia, but also Kenya, Ethiopia and Jamaica.) Right now, we don’t know who’s clean. Not Gatlin, not Bolt, not Lilly King. And they can’t prove it to us, which is tragic.

A year ago, in advance of the Bolt-Gatlin showdown in Beijing, I wrote, “What we have Sunday is a simple footrace. Track and field’s problems will still be there at the finish.” Bolt defeated Gatlin that night in the Birds Nest Olympic Stadium. Gatlin shrank from the moment—and from Bolt—and finished in 9.80, .01 behind the Big Man. BBC broadcaster Steve Cram, an Olympic silver medalist in the 1,500 meters in 1984, called the race and said, as Bolt crossed the line, “He saved his title. He saved his reputation. He may have even saved his sport.”

One year later, the doping issue has never been more muddled and Bolt is on the verge of retirement. Nothing has been saved by Gatlin’s defeat or by his shunning. The problems are still there, in many ways bigger than ever.