America at Large: Justin Gatlin not coming back to Olympics with saintly virtues

Even prayer will not diminish the doping record of former Olympic gold medalist

Justin Gatlin of the United States won the 2004 Olympic Games 100m before being banned for doping. Photograph: Reuters.

Justin Gatlin of the United States won the 2004 Olympic Games 100m before being banned for doping. Photograph: Reuters.

 

Justin Gatlin popped up on NBC’s pre-Olympic publicity campaign last week, beaming effervescently while having his ear nuzzled by a cute puppy. The kind of overdone “aw shucks” photograph beloved of viral marketers everywhere, at least until some wag on Twitter wondered aloud whether the animal was a drug-sniffing dog.

This was shortly after doing an interview with US Weekly (a glossy entertainment magazine) in which he talked about the emotional impact his six-year-old son Jace has on his performances these days.

“Before my races, I’ll talk to my mom, my dad and my son,” said Gatlin. “He’ll say: ‘All right, Daddy, you’ve got to win today.’ If my son says that, I’m trying to move mountains. I’m trying to move mountains for him, so I’ve got to go out there with the intent to really try to do it.”

Touching sentiments

The Fast Life of Justin Gatlin

“I got down on my knees and I asked God before I got back in the sport,” says Gatlin at one point in the show. “I prayed out aloud and said: ‘God, just give me the opportunity. I want to be just who I was before. I wasn’t trying to get an edge on anybody. I wasn’t trying to be better than anybody in some wrong way. I wasn’t trying to get some cheese, get my money and get out. God put me back to what I was.’”

Ignoring the fact God appears to have mysteriously improved him from what he was before his last four-year suspension, the unashamed soundtrack playing in the background is a redemption song. The carefully sketched portrait is of a veteran competitor juggling the demands of delighted fatherhood with trying to make the podium one last time. Some features have even lumped him in with fellow new dad Michael Phelps in that regard.

Second Captains

To anybody who has been paying attention (which is not a lot of Americans when it comes to athletics), the cuddly, prayerful Gatlin being sold to audiences by all of the above corporations and the mighty Nike reeks of what is wrong with modern sport. It’s not just that Gatlin has twice failed drug tests, served two bans from the track, and boasted a long history of working with known doping cheats. More pertinent is the fact he still steadfastly refuses to accept responsibility for his own actions yet goes around to schools and colleges lecturing kids about the dangers of drugs.

In his alternate reality, he contends the first test was due to the Adderall he was popping for his Attention Deficit Disorder in college, the second was the work of a dastardly masseuse conspiring to wreak revenge on Nike, and, most brazen of all, actually resents media references to him as a “two-time drug cheat”. The warped sense of entitlement and the grand delusion under which he operates is perhaps understandable given the way some approach his past. Or, try to forget it all together, in the case of Nike who welcomed him back to the fold once he showed himself capable of seriously competing with Usain Bolt. Strange that.

Sports Illustrated recently ran a lengthy question and answer session with Gatlin where the sole mention of his doping past came via an editor’s note inserted in brackets before publication.

To give you a flavour of the way some journalists in these parts want to ignore so many elephants in the room, the only time the interviewer raised the topic of Gatlin’s controversial trainer Dennis Mitchell it was in the context of criticisms of how he has coached the American relay teams.

That a “two-time drug cheat” works every day with Mitchell, another two-time drug cheat, was not deemed relevant. Never mind that Mitchell is the former sprinter who once claimed the excess testosterone that caused him to test positive was caused by a few beers and having sex with his wife four times on her birthday because “she deserved a treat”.

Ignore the troubling detail of how Mitchell later admitted to being injected with HGH by his then coach Trevor Graham.

That would be the same Graham Mitchell who at the height of his impressive doping powers used to work with Marion Jones, Tim Montgomery and, eh, Justin Gatlin. Against that tawdry background, hearing Mitchell attribute Gatlin’s spectacular, almost incredulous, improvement after so many years away from the event to weight loss and better technique is as risible as the attempt to spin his Olympic dream as some sort of feel-good comeback narrative.

Double standards

On his Twitter profile, Gatlin describes himself as a Renaissance man and states, “God ain’t done with me yet”. At one point during The Fast Life, he says of his current situation: “Everything I prayed for has been answered because I’ve worked towards those prayers.”

The especially sordid way athletics looks right now, the intervention of some demented higher power is as logical an explanation as any for how Gatlin is being feted.

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