The Guardian: An uncomfortable question for USA fans: is it OK to root for Justin Gatlin?
....thoughts?It was less an an hour after Lilly King had defeated Yulia Efimova for the gold medal in a women’s 100m breaststroke final that had been cast, quite deliberately by King herself, as a morality play. Only two days prior had Efimova, who had served her time for a pair of performance-enhancing drug offenses before testing positive for meldonium this year, been reinstated to the Olympics along with four other Russian athletes under cloudy circumstances – a development that did not sit right with the straight-talking teenager. Verbal sparring and finger-wags ensued. It was the sort of plotline that makes NBC’s producers drool: the freckle-faced midwesterner vanquishing the treacherous Russian and two-time drugs cheat to tears – all served on a silver platter in prime time. “It’s incredible,” King said before deliver a slight twist of the dagger. “Just winning a gold medal, and knowing I did it clean.”
But toward the end of the post-race press conference, the question came: if King felt so strongly about Efimova being permitted to compete, what of her US Olympic team-mate Justin Gatlin? “Do I think people who have been caught doping should be on the team? They shouldn’t,” the Indiana native clapped back. “It is just something that needs to be set in stone.”
It’s forced American sports fans to confront an uncomfortable question as Sunday night’s showdown between Gatlin and Usain Bolt in the 100m final draws near: is it OK to root for Justin Gatlin?
The international media has long since rendered their judgment. Since the run-up to their high-profile showdown at last year’s world championships – the fastest man in history against the fastest man of the year – Bolt v Gatlin has been simplistically pitched as good against evil: 100m for the soul of athletics. Of course, the Jamaican superstar’s narrow victory that night in Beijing did nothing to resolve the sport’s decades-old PED problem any more than would a history-making third gold medal in the Olympics’ prestige event.
People make it seem like Gatlin is a chronic doper. His first suspension came when he was a 19-year-old college student for Adderall, a drug he’d been taking since childhood for attention deficit disorder, which resulted in a two-year ban that was later reduced to one when arbitrators determined he didn’t use them for doping. The second – the bad one – came in 2006 when results of a blood test at the Kansas Relays revealed traces of testosterone and steroid precursors.
“At the end of the day, the time has been served. I’ve served that time,” Gatlin told the Associated Press on Wednesday when pressed to address King’s remarks. “I’ve dealt with that punishment. I’ve moved forward.”
Few things in life, not least the long-running epidemic of doping in sport, are black and white. But we should incentive clean athletes and clean competition. We may never get there, but we must keep reaching. There is something special about pure talent, something inspiring about watching that kind of history made. The day we stop caring is the day we’ve surrendered ourselves to something more akin to motorsports – part man, part machine.
Right now, we have no idea who is clean and who is dirty. The past is gone and tomorrow is unknown. All we have is Sunday’s race – only the biggest and most important race in the world – with the winners of the last three Olympic golds going head to head.
So root for whoever feels right. All we know is the sport’s problems are far bigger than any one athlete – and it certainly shouldn’t be on a 19-year-old Olympic debutante to take the lead on it.