Athletics: 'Queasy' Coe must take a definitive stance on Gatlin, one way or another

Usain Bolt (right) in London on July 24, 2015 and Justin Gatlin in Brussels on Sept 5, 2014.
Usain Bolt (right) in London on July 24, 2015 and Justin Gatlin in Brussels on Sept 5, 2014. PHOTO: AFP

Spare me the blather. Don't bore me with the hype. The Usain Bolt-Justin Gatlin showdown in Beijing is not a battle for the soul of athletics; nor is it about good versus evil.  It's not about a clean runner against one who has failed two drug tests.

Let's not invest it with heavy rhetoric. Bolt and Gatlin are simply racing to beat each other, for a variety of reasons, none of which are too complex or hard to grasp. 

They're not going to take to the track for the 100m tomorrow and the 200m on Thursday with the thought that they have an extra burden on their broad shoulders, other than the fact that each of them needs to win.

Straight up, that's what it's about. They're not competing for the bigger picture. They're racing to whup each other. Bolt and Gatlin are like modern-day gold prospectors, each intent on proving that they deserve the tag of the fastest sprinter in the world.

Their battle in Beijing certainly doesn't distill down a contest that will define the future of athletics. But it does raise a vital question, about the way the sport is administered and how it will deal with the recent allegations of large-scale cover-ups on drug tests.

So what does percolate through here is the fact that Sebastian Coe, the new president-designate of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), must define his own standpoint on the issue of Justin Gatlin. For Coe to say this week that the Gatlin issue makes him "queasy" is not good enough.

Coe needs to decide whether or not he is comfortable about Gatlin competing. There can be no grey area here. Either he agrees with the whole prolonged process that saw Gatlin fail two drug tests five years apart, receive a heavy sanction and then get a reprieve that permitted him to return to the sport, or he must quickly chart a new policy on Gatlin and his ilk.

In 2001, the US sprinter failed his first test, when amphetamines were found in his urine samples. Gatlin's explanation was that their presence was due to medication for attention deficit disorder. Five years later, he tested positive to testosterone, which he put down to a substance used by a masseuse.

Having failed two tests, he could have potentially been suspended for life according to the rules of the World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada) code, but after he decided to support Usada's anti-doping campaign, the organisation gave him an eight-year ban instead.

Not surprisingly, Gatlin then appealed against the ban and in January 2008, following a 2-1 vote, a Usada arbitration panel cut Gatlin's ban to four years.

Thus, for Coe to say Gatlin's presence in Beijing gives him the heebie-jeebies is effectively to say that he is unhappy with the processes of Usada, which works closely with the IAAF and other world governing bodies.

So pay heed to Bolt's words in Beijing this week, when he said: "It's sad. People are saying I need to win for the sport, but I can't do it by myself. It's (the) responsibility of all the athletes to take it upon themselves to save the sport and go forwards without drug cheats. It's not just on me, but on all the athletes."

But there was also the distinct feeling that the discussion was starting to grate on Bolt. "All I've been hearing about the past couple weeks is doping, doping, doping," the Jamaican said. "It definitely is sad that it's in the forefront of the World Championships, and it's not about the competition that's coming up. For me, it's sad but I can't do anything about it because you're the ones writing about it."

Yes, indeed, the media must dissect it in a robust manner. And the media seeks Bolt's opinion precisely because he is a six-time Olympic champion, a back-to-back Olympic sprint double hero and - as the poster boy and most marketable star of athletics - his view must count.

But just as Bolt must face journalists to answer searching question about drugs and eligibility, so too must Coe, the former Olympian who will define the next phase for a sport severely tainted by this month's allegations.

dmcmahon@sph.com.sg