In Good Conscience

In Good Conscience: The air around Justin Gatlin is no longer fresh

The night that Justin Gatlin dethroned Usain Bolt as the world's fastest man felt like breaking wind in a crowded room.

It was London, Aug 5, 2017. The audience, drawn to the final run of the greatest sprinter in history, began booing even before the race.

There was regret that Bolt was clearly beyond his best. And there was disgust that Gatlin, an ageing American twice banned and twice allowed back, was seen as a mockery of clean sport.

Gatlin put his forefinger to his lips in an attempt to hush the crowd. He felt persecution where he expected absolution.

From that night on, it seemed only a matter of time before an after-shock, an asterisk to Gatlin's new status as the king of speed, appeared. And it has.

The Daily Telegraph laid traps for two people working with Gatlin. Using familiar British newspaper sting tactics, pretending to be film producers seeking to buy performance-enhancing drugs to boost actors playing the role of athletes, the reporters covertly recorded the meeting.

Gatlin was not in the room. But his running coach Dennis Mitchell was. So, too, was Austrian agent Robert Wagner, who negotiates sponsorships on behalf of many top athletes, including Gatlin.

Mitchell has past form as an American sprinter who took part in the infamous 1988 Seoul Olympic race after which the winner, Canadian Ben Johnson, was disqualified for testing positive for a drug that boosts testosterone.

That 100 metres final, now almost 30 years ago, should have been the nadir of athletic corruption. Only two of the eight runners finished their careers unstained.

The rest, including Carl Lewis, Britain's Linford Christie and Mitchell, all subsequently failed dope tests.

Lewis was cleared by the US Olympic Committee despite testing positive for stimulants.

Mitchell insisted that excessively high testosterone levels in his system 10 years after Seoul was down to him drinking five bottles of beer and having sex with his wife - an explanation that washed with the US Track and Field who exonerated him, but not with the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) which banned him for two years.

Later, when the US government brought an investigation into the Californian laboratory, Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative (Balco), that newspapers exposed for supplying drugs across American sports for two decades, Mitchell testified that he had been injected with human growth hormone by his former coach, Trevor Graham.

Marion Jones went to jail for perjuring herself by denying her drug abuse before the Grand Jury.

Legendary baseball slugger Barry Bonds, similarly accused of lying about steroid use, had charges against him dropped. He does, however, pay a price; he has not been honoured in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

So the US, on the front foot where Russian drug cheating is concerned, has its own chequered past.

The principle of redemption is strong in American law. During the 2017 IAAF World Athletics Championships, Gatlin turned away from the jeers of 56,000 fans in London to say: "I tuned it out. I'm just a runner. I've done my time, did community service. I inspired kids about the right path, and the people who love me are cheering for me, my countrymen are cheering for me."

Maybe some are. Nike took him back as a poster boy and, until the dastardly Daily Telegraph entrapped his coach and his agent, Gatlin believed he had a free run leading right up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games.

He will be 38 by then, but believes he is only getting faster.

Many had said it was not the best idea for him to hire the tainted Mitchell as his career adviser.

Up to this week, Gatlin appeared to apply the same absolution to his coach as to himself.

Once he read The Telegraph, and saw the video, Gatlin posted this on Instagram: "I am not using and have not used PEDs . I was shocked and surprised to learn that my coach would have anything to do with even the appearance of these current accusations on his account.

Famous athletes could make a mistake, clean up their act, and come back to show the world that it was never the drugs but their talent applied to know-how that won the medals.

Once he read The Telegraph, and saw the video, Gatlin posted this on Instagram: "I am not using and have not used PEDs . I was shocked and surprised to learn that my coach would have anything to do with even the appearance of these current accusations on his account.

"I fired him as soon as I found out about this. All legal options are on the table as I will not allow others to lie about me like this. I have no further comments as it is now a legal matter."

There are those who think that getting caught is the crime. This form of journalistic entrapment has been around for decades - just ask Sven-Goran Eriksson, who lost his England job in 2006 after being duped by the so-called Fake Sheikh of the News of the World.

Or ask Sam Allardyce, who fell for a similar sting set up by Daily Telegraph reporters.

Gatlin's people aren't British, so perhaps being duped by the same tactic is understandable.

But not excusable. Mitchell and Wagner were recorded saying they could supply US$250,000 (S$336,000) worth of testosterone and human growth hormone for the actors they supposed wanted to train up to be athletes.

Wagner boasted that importing drugs was his "field of expertise". He claimed that he could get fake prescriptions for athletes from his Austrian connections.

The newspaper quotes him as saying: "You think Justin is not doing this? Do you think Dennis (Mitchell) wasn't doing this? Everybody does it."

Surely not. If "everybody" is doing it, if athletic performance is contaminated by the collusion between corrupt medical practitioners and competitors, then everything in this sports section is a sham.

I do not for an instant believe that. But we do need to flush out the crooks whenever we can.

Wagner has informed the IAAF "Integrity Unit" that he played along with the undercover reporters.

He claims: "Obviously, I played along because I knew what was going on. I had to get them hooked."

Hooked, indeed. He further claims: "I was led into making false comments by two make-believe film producers. I went along with this charade because I believed it might help me get a movie contract."

The Austrian says he has personally apologised to the sportsmen he wrongly implicated, and for seeking to benefit from "their hard-earned reputations".

Greed, then, was his motive. That might be what the middleman is in this for.

But Gatlin, like any other athlete, is responsible for what goes into his body, and what company he keeps.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 23, 2017, with the headline 'The air around Gatlin is no longer fresh'. Print Edition | Subscribe