It was announced a few days ago that the American sprinter Justin Gatlin is on the shortlist for the IAAF (International Association of Athletics Federations) “Athlete of the Year” award for 2014. This is largely due to his having set the fastest times over both 100m and 200m this year; faster than Usain Bolt, faster than Yohan Blake, faster than anyone. In fact, he has set 6 of the 7 fastest times over 100m in 2014! Also, he has run faster over both 100m and 200m than anyone one else in their 30s (he is 32). Ever. But, should Gatlin be considered by the IAAF for such a prestigious award? Should he be even allowed to compete at all?
For those of you not familiar with Gatlin’s athletics career, he has twice been banned for failing drugs tests. In 2001 he failed a doping test, testing positive for amphetamines. He was given a 2 year ban by the IAAF, but Gatlin appealed saying that his positive test was due to medication that he had been taking since he was a child. Upon appeal, Gatlin’s ban was reduced by the IAAF to 1 year. It was made clear by the IAAF to Gatlin that, despite his ban being reduced to 1 year, that it would stay on his record and a second positive test would result in a life-time ban. In 2004 he won the Greece Olympics 100m, and in 2005 he won both the 100m and 200m at the World Athletics Championships.
In July 2006 he was found guilty of doping for a second time, from a sample taken after a relay event in late April. After the usual denial of guilt that 99.9% of athletes give, in August 2006 Gatlin avoided a life-time ban (which should have been his punishment for a second offence) by agreeing to cooperate with the doping authorities, and also because of the “exceptional circumstances” of his first positive doping offence in 2001.
Then, Gatlin appealed this 8-year ban which he had negotiated at a Court of Arbitration in the US, who reduced the ban to a 4-year ban. Gatlin then appealed this ban to the World Court of Arbitration in Sport in Lausanne, asking for it to be halved again to 2 years, but in December 2006 the Lausanne Court upheld the 4-year ban the US Court had given.
So, by 2010 he was back competing, and since then his results have steadily improved after a 4-year absence. In 2011 in the World Athletics Championships he was eliminated in the semi-finals of the 100m. In the 2012 London Olympics he won Bronze in the 100m, and in the 2013 World Athletics Championships he won Silver. This year, he has beaten all before him and has not lost a single race at either 100m or 200m.
Many feel, given his having been banned twice for drug doping, that the IAAF should not be including him in any shortlist of Athlete of the Year. Sebastian Coe, the current vice-president of the IAAF, and hotly tipped to become President next year, has voiced his concerns, and he is not alone.
Personally I feel that Gatlin’s second doping offence should have resulted in a life-time ban, or at least the 8-year ban that he negotiated with the IAAF (which, at his age, would have essentially been a life-time ban). Even if he is allowed to compete, I feel he should be banned from taking part in major championships, and certainly should not be considered for any awards like Athlete of the Year. Athletics (“Track and Field” as Americans call it) have a big problem with doping, particularly in the sprint events. As I have blogged about before, a disturbingly high fraction of the top sprinters have been found guilty of doping over the last 30 years. It is not a problem that is going to go away when cheating athletes are given a third chance.
If you take a look at the list of the 8 finalists from the 100m in the most recent Olympic games, the 2012 London Games, the number who have served doping bans is pretty shocking.
Of the 8 finalist, 4 (four!) of them have tested positive for doping. As I’ve commented before, athletics, particularly the men’s 100m, is teetering on the brink of losing all credibility as a clean sport. Shortlisting Justin Gatlin for an Athlete of the Year award does nothing to enhance its already tainted credibility.