The Gatlin dilemma

19 May 2015 Posted by

A version of this article appeared in The Times Newspaper on May 18th, 2015

But I’m not a man like that. I’m not the kind of guy to cheat people of their money or let the fans down… that’s not what I do

Those were the words of Justin Gatlin, the current fastest man in the world, as he left Beijing feeling disrespected by meeting organizers.  It is the latest episode in the Gatlin drama, which gathers momentum as Gatlin gathers speed.  The American, for those who have missed the story, ran 9.74s at the season-opening Diamond League meeting in Doha on Friday, a time that is faster than anything he ran in his ‘previous life’, prior to a four-year doping ban which ended in 2010.

Gatlin’s return to the sport in 2010 has always been controversial.  The four-year ban, from 2006 to 2010, was for a failed test for testosterone, which Gatlin has claimed came from a massage therapist who “sabotaged” him by rubbing testosterone cream into his legs without his knowledge.  That was actually Gatlin’s second run-in with a doping violation – back in 2001, he tested positive for amphetamines.

A two-year ban was overturned on appeal because Gatlin was able to prove that since childhood, he had been taking medication for attention deficit disorder.

One strike avoided.  He went on to win the Olympic  100m title in 2004, and ran what was then a world-record equalling time of 9.77s in May, 2006.  That was to be his peak, because in July, his positive test was announced (for a competition in April, which meant that his 9.77s was annulled).

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An unusual performance progression and imminent PR problem

Since his return in 2010, he has run faster every single year, and claimed six of the seven fastest times in 2014.  He also had the two fastest 200m of the year, including a double at the Brussels Diamond league event where he ran 9.77s and 19.71s on the same evening.

Impressive stuff, and just what the sport needs – a challenger to Usain Bolt (and the other Jamaicans) as we build towards the Rio 2016 Olympics, and Bolt’s quest to claim a third sprint double.

Except, there’s that nagging, not insignificant doping problem around that challenger.  Gatlin is the problem that will not go away.  And this latest Beijing-boycott/slight (position determines perspective) comes hot on the heels of the 9.74s, and there’s no sign of it abating.

It will reach a peak later this year (ironically, in Beijing), where Gatlin has a shot at dethroning Bolt as the world champion.  That is, however, only a taste of what lies ahead, because if Gatlin continues to improve, and Bolt cannot return to his 2012/2013 level, Gatlin is a viable Olympic champion in 2016.

That will take the issue ‘mainstream’ (as much as we like to think it, track and field is still a niche sport), and suddenly the Olympic Games’ most recognized face will have been beaten by a convicted, and non-admitting, doper.  That’s the definition of a PR problem for a sport that already has a trust issue.  And as Sean Ingle pointed out in his article on this very issue, Gatlin’s presence is a source of mistrust to a sport that is already fighting cynicism in the face of all the doping and anti-doping issues it faces.

In the case of Gatlin, you have an athlete, at 33, running faster than he did at 24, ostensibly without the benefit of steroids. Think that through. Hypothetically (because nobody knows the true benefit), let’s say that steroids are worth 2% to a 100m sprinter.  This is probably conservative – documents from the East German system suggest an advantage closer to 5%.  But we don’t really know – this is one of the issues making the doping discussion murky and it makes judgments of “doping by performance” unfair and impossible (as I’ve written many, many times for cycling).

However, at 2%, which gives some benefit of the doubt to Gatlin, there’s still a big barrier.  It’s worth 2/10th of a second over 100m.  Now you factor in age.  By itself, Gatlin’s ‘second coming’ at the age of 33 would be a subject of discussion.  It’s rare for a 100m sprinter to improve beyond 30.  Bolt’s current PB was at 22, as was Yohan Blake’s.  Asafa Powell and Nesta Carter were 25, Tyson Gay was 27.

In previous generations, Maurice Greene’s PB was at 25 and his Olympic gold was at 26.  Donovan Bailey set his world record winning gold in Atlanta when 28 years old.  In other words, Gatlin, at the time that he won the 2004 Olympic 100m title and set his then-PB, was “typical” of a 100m sprinter, hitting a peak from 22 to 24 years of age.

What Gatlin is doing now, continuing to improve as he approaches 34 would, is the exact opposite of “typical”, and would be a subject of discussion, even without the doping history.  That’s not to say it’s impossible – Linford Christie’s PB came at 33.  Michael Johnson’s 400m WR was at 29.

The former, it has to be said, is not exactly a sterling reference for sprinter longevity – Christie had numerous run-ins with anti-doping authorities, and served a two-year ban for a steroid himself.

But on this age-issue, don’t just take my word for it – rather have a read of this excellent analysis, done shortly after my article, by Roger Pielke Jr.  I’ve reproduced his graph below, and his article is a must-read for the full story, but basically it shows how compared the top 9 of all-time and Carl Lewis, Gatlin’s own performance trajectory is highly atypical.  They improve up to about 27, and then get slower.  Gatlin doesn’t.

Top 10 sprinter graphs

Source: Roger Pielke Jr, Gatlin’s Geriatric Sprinting Exceptionalism

Two confounders here.  First, Gatlin’s biological age and his “performance age” are not the same – that four-year ban may have some effect on his own age-related progression.  I’ve seen some research (admittedly, in marathon runners) showing that regardless of age, it’s years of competition that influence performance.  That cannot possibly hold true at the very top of elite sport because of the inherent competition for the top 0.01%, but it may be a contributing factor.  How large? Who knows?

Then second, Kim Collins is not on that graph.  He is also an extreme outlier, as this graph, produced by Scott Olberding shows.  Gatlin is the red symbol.  I’d say there are three outliers – Gatlin’s red diamond, Kim Collins who is all by himself on the top left, and then Usain Bolt’s WR, far right.

Age and performance graph

Source: Scott Olberding on Twitter

I did not mention Collins the first time around (I should have).  He is a clear outlier, but the reason I chose to leave him out is that right now, as good as he is, and as impressive as those performances are, they are mostly noteworthy for his age, not the absolute level of performance (sub-10 is great, don’t get me wrong. But it’s not sub-9.90s – look at how the performances thin out as you move to the right in the graph above).  If he runs 9.85s or faster, and starts to present himself as a realistic medal contender or Diamond League winner, then you’d see how the whole tone of the conversation would change.

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Doping lifetime benefits for lifetime bans?

Nevertheless, one can argue that for every “rule” about ageing, there are exceptions, and Gatlin could claim to be that exception.  Were that not the case, you’d have to factor in, say, a 1% age-related deterioration every three years (again, hypothetically speaking) to evaluate his current vs past performance levels.

This hypothetical scenario means that Gatlin, version 2.0, aged 33, would have overcome a 2% slow-down due to steroid removal, and a further 2% due to the passage of time, and still run faster than Gatlin version 1.0, aged 24, ever did.  You see why there is a problem of “respect” and disbelief?

There is a possibility, supported by research, that the effect of steroids persists long after doping ends because of what researchers called a “cellular memory mechanism”. That study was in mice, but it does lend support to the idea that maybe Gatlin is not doping any longer, but is still cashing in on the time that he was.

That, in turn, leads into a discussion about the appropriateness of doping bans.  If the benefit outlasts the use, then people have said lifetime bans are the only suitable punishment.  And while I absolutely agree with that in principle, there is a reality that makes it impossible.  If a doping offence (and we’d have to limit them specifically to a class of ‘serious doping’ like testosterone and EPO) is going to get a lifetime ban, then you can be sure that the legal machinery following a positive test will start to spin very aggressively.

The accused will fight that much harder to avoid that sanction, and I can foresee that the entire system would be crippled by the legal processes that it would demand to enforce that length of ban.  Plus, what happens if an athlete is genuinely sabotaged?  I don’t use Gatlin as the example to defend him, but because it’s appropriate, but imagine for a moment, if you can, that his explanation for that 2006 positive is true, that a masseuse did deliberate set him up to fail a test?  Or imagine that other athletes have had the same happen?  Lifetime bans, while theoretically a good idea, change the entire ‘game’ after the positive test, because of those possibilities, and I don’t think the legal system can, at this stage, deal with that.

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The doping problem, and Gatlin as a symbol

Back to Gatlin, while some will say that he has served his time, so let him run, you can appreciate the general sentiment.  The cynicism of sport’s fans is borne of the fact that if history has taught us anything, it’s that testing is too ‘blunt’ to catch cheats who may have access to undetectable, designer steroids, and it’s too imprecise to catch clever cheats who know exactly when to take the known drugs to avoid detection.

For that reason, Gatlin’s presence, never mind his dominance, was always going to draw incredulous responses from people who, quite reasonably, are tired of it all.  Their trust is at all-time low, and along comes a man who has twice failed tests (even if one might be justifiable), has twice denied any deliberate wrong-doing, AND who bucks the norm for age-related decline.

Gatlin has also inherited a spotlight on 100m sprinters that dates back to Ben Johnson, who was the symbol for doping in sport, prior to Lance Armstrong, anyway.  Look down a list of the world’s fastest men and women, and you’ll see Johnson, Linford Christie. Tim Montgomery. Marion Jones. Tyson Gay. Asafa Powell.

It’s indisputable that when you look at a list of champion 100m runners, you are looking at a list heavily tainted by doping. Therefore, if you are a 100m champion, you earn the title of World’s fastest man, and it comes free with a second title – world’s least trusted athlete (perhaps you share the latter with the Tour de France champion).  Point is, it’s a package deal, and the doping spotlight is inevitable.  Gatlin is merely the athlete currently standing in it, and its glare is that much more intense because of the circumstances around his arrival to this point.

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Gatlin’s three strikes

That is, Gatlin has “three strikes” in a world of unprecedented skepticism – he is a former doper, dominating a historically doped event, while running faster than his previously doped self.  With all due respect, Mr Gatlin, that’s a list that means you can’t demand respect from anyone, and nor can you expect too much sympathy at the Beijing incident.

That said, Gatlin is himself in an incredible dilemma.  Set aside your pre-conceived notions for a brief moment, and imagine that Gatlin actually is innocent NOW.  What can he possibly do to convince a skeptical public?  The answer is nothing, short of slowing down and losing.

Even an offer of full transparency to authorities would not work, because those who know the sport would point to THG and the BALCO scandal, where a designer steroid that was undetectable to testers was used by 100m sprinters.  Gatlin would be able to dope minutes before a test and never be caught.

So he really is in an impossible predicament.

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Track’s predicament

He is, however, not the only one with a predicament.  The whole sport has a problem.  Part of it is the current climate of skepticism around elite sport and the (in)ability of anti-doping to change it.  But there’s also the problem that if you’re condemning Gatlin on the basis of his performance, then there’s an inconvenient reality facing the entire 100m event.  That is, Gatlin is the fastest right now, but there are men who’ve been faster than him, and by some distance in the case of Bolt.

And sure, I appreciate that judging Gatlin is not done on the basis of performance alone – he has three strikes, as I mentioned above.  However, the same logic that makes you incredulous that Gatlin can perform at the level he currently is should also ask some uncomfortable questions about how anyone can be much faster than him?  In other words, if Gatlin is getting that 2/10th of a second advantage from doping to run 9.74s, then what of the man who beats him by 0.16s (in terms of PBs)?

And yes, I appreciate that this is a circular argument, and also that “guilt by performance” is not fair and is impossible, but the point remains that Gatlin is not the only man who is standing in a spotlight.

On every level – for the credibility of anti-doping, and the believability of sprinting – Gatlin is a magnet for all the wrong reasons. But he may just shake us from a naïve apathy. The response to his success will be interesting.

Ross

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