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The Hero and the Villain: The Booing of Justin Gatlin

BY: Alex Gordon | Category: Sports | Submitted: 2017-08-06 16:05:51
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Article Summary: "The booing of Justin Gatlin has been applauded, condemned and examined by the BBC and social media. Justin Gatlin must have seen it coming..."


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So far at the IAAF World Athletics Championships in the Olympic Stadium in London, the traditional status quo and the expected sequence of events have failed to play themselves out. The consensus favourite in the Women's 100m, Olympic Champion Elaine Thompson of Jamaica, failed in her quest for Gold. Katarina Johnson Thompson of Great Britain, who many experts had argued had a very strong case for a medal at these Championships, finished adrift of the podium in the Women's Heptathlon. Lastly, on an enthralling Saturday night, Usain Bolt's fairytale ending was denied by American sprinter Justin Gatlin who captured glory in the Men's 100m final. However, it has been the latter that has divided opinion so sharply in the hours that followed.

At the beginning of the BBC's coverage of the World Championships on Sunday, commentator Steve Cram and former American athlete Michael Johnson had an impassioned debate surrounding the merits of Gatlin and the reaction he has received, with particular reference to the boos that were heard in the Olympic Stadium due to Gatlin's label as a two-time drugs cheat. There have been accusations from social media that the BBC (and arguably, the media in general) has presented a particular one-sided narrative to this situation by casting Bolt as a 'hero' and Gatlin as the 'pantomime villain'. In their debate, this was questioned most notably by Michael Johnson who argued that if Gatlin is to be booed because of his position as a drugs cheat, why is every athlete at the Championships who has failed a drugs test not booed also? Why simply him?

Now, obviously it is clear that the reason why the crowd at the Olympic Stadium booed Gatlin so fervently was because of his past as a 'drugs cheat'. It is also obvious that for much of the audience in attendance at the Olympic Stadium on Saturday night, this is how far their knowledge of the situation extends through those simple three words 'Gatlin' 'drugs' and 'cheat'. Now, again, for the viewers in attendance at the Olympic Stadium, it was an easy reaction, one that originated from an emotional and angry impulse with regards to the defeat of the 'people's champion' Usain Bolt. The narrative was too simplistic to ignore and one that was easily understood especially when we consider that many of the people in attendance would, potentially, not have been diehard athletics fans and had no further knowledge of the situation. This reaction was initiated because within the contemporary climate of drug use within sport and the stories that reverberate throughout other sports about the conditions and influx of drug use, there is a new and heightened moral compass that is continually being strengthened that sports must be kept 'clean' and devoid of drugs. What Gatlin has come to embody and represent clearly contradicts this viewpoint. Over the decades, the concept of drug taking has increasingly become solidified in its position as the 'dirty word' of sport and it seems that whenever an athlete is simply referenced in the same sentence as 'drugs', the public tide and public opinion immediately flows against them. This was clearly the case on Saturday.

Before we progress, let's get the facts correct. In 2001, Justin Gatlin was banned from international competition for two years after testing positively for a drug called amphetamines, used to combat ADHD. This was part of the medication that Gatlin had been taking since childhood. The IAAF knew Gatlin was taking this at the time and for many, this was labelled a minor infraction. After returning to the sport of athletics, in 2006, Gatlin was then banned for eight years (downgraded to four on appeal) for another positive doping test. This time it was for testosterone and although Gatlin argued 'exceptional circumstances' in that his physiotherapist had applied it to him through faulty cream during a massage, he was banned from the sport for a second time. This excuse, for many, was difficult to understand and truly comprehend. This then led to him being labelled a two-time drugs cheat. Furthermore, it didn't aid Gatlin that his coach at the time, Trevor Graham, had a reputation for being involved in drug related scandals as he had previously coached a series of athletes who had been banned for drug use.

We cannot forget that drug-taking is cheating and contradicts the fairness of the profession and that through drug-taking, it limits the honest successes of other athletes who are clean and have worked hard for their opportunity. Gatlin, upon returning to the sport he had damaged, failed to show a lack of co-operation with the authorities in regards to his actions and to many, failed to even apologise for them unless prompted and failed to, in public, condemn doping within the sport. In a broadcast from the Beijing World Championships in 2015, Steve Cram stated that Gatlin was reported to have said in an interview that his 'biggest mistake was that (he) chose the wrong physiotherapist.' This lack of contrition has done him no favours around the knowledgeable supporters of athletics and the critics of drug use and rehabilitation in sport. Gatlin therefore has done little to actively dispel this 'villain' tag since his return to the sport and this would have been known by people within the Olympic Stadium on Saturday. Because of this, Gatlin surely has to understand that with his history, he is going to be subjected to abuse, whether from the public or from the media and whether this abuse is morally correct or not.

Linked to this, it is equally fair to state that Gatlin partakes in the 100m which is seen as the blue ribbon event of an Athletics Championships and with this, he, and the rest of his competitors, have been subjected to extensive coverage and build-up. This has been enforced in these Championships with the impending retirement of Usain Bolt and again inevitably, Gatlin has been compared to Bolt but not only in athletic terms, but also in his moral capabilities and what we perceive a sportsman to fully embody and represent. This isn't a personal crusade against Gatlin, more so against the issue of drugs in sport, but he must have known that this was coming and that attempts to humanise the situation, through interviews and appearances, would have been met with resistance. Although a potential double standard but nonetheless important to state, a drugs cheat in the Men's Discus, for instance, will not garner the same coverage and the results, potentially, will not mean as much to the casual athletics fan. The fact that Gatlin was so successful and managed to win the 100m final on Saturday, beating Bolt, places him into a position whereby he is going to receive this attention and this reaction.

Ultimately, at the crux of this debate lies a wider issue relating to international organisations and governing bodies. To allow drug users within sport to return to competition after their bans opens up the possibility for an event like we witnessed over the weekend to happen. If sport cannot forgive athletes for their actions in the past and doesn't protect them when they return, why are they allowed back into the sport? There must be a stricter system put in place and ruthless decisions must be made. Now, upon returning from their bans, athletes who have taken drugs and been labelled 'drugs cheats' are forever tarnished with this issue and an untrustworthy image. Whereas previously performances were labelled as 'superlative' and 'awe-inspiring', now they may be coined as 'questionable' and 'controversial'. Whether that is correct or not is a different issue, but that is the society we reside in and is that how we want to continue? To take this content further and to an extreme level, one might be forgiven for thinking that Gatlin's victory on Saturday acts as almost a justification for drug-use in sport and shows the IAAF to be feeble when it comes to acting on the most severe matters. Because of this, athletics, with its semi-tarnished image already, needed its hero to win to keep the proponents of drug-taking in sport at bay and the sport in a positive light.

Gatlin's image has already been cast. Although Michael Johnson has argued that the media has enforced this idea of Gatlin as the 'villain', it seems that the public had already decided upon this new persona and overall, the blame lies with Justin Gatlin himself. From now on, the medals he wins and the faster he runs will always be questioned and, almost definitely, will be met with similar responses to the ones we witnessed on Saturday. The flow cannot be stopped and it is Gatlin's own personal choices which has created this climate.

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