As it hosted the 2015 World Athletics Championships last week, Beijing found itself a city stalked by haze, both atmospheric and political. The latter effort to clear the air on a matter that had nothing to do with the environment proved to be about as successful as government attempts to better the city’s notorious air quality.
Track and field fans had been awaiting a much-anticipated showdown between world champion sprinter Usain Bolt, of Jamaica, and Justin Gatlin, an American whose otherwise outstanding career has been tainted, some fear irreparably, by admitted flirtations with performance-enhancing drugs.
Before the speedsters faced off in the 100- and 200-meter runs, Gatlin released to The Guardian letters that detailed the extent of his cooperation with anti-doping investigators and his remorse over “past mistakes,” including using a banned substance in 2006. His change of heart, he wrote, has him nowadays warning younger athletes not to follow in his fleet footsteps. In one missive, the 33-year-old native of Brooklyn, N.Y., wrote:
I am sincerely remorseful, and it continues to be my mission to be a positive role model mentoring to athletes to avoid the dangers and public and personal humiliation of doping [a]nd the harm it brings to the sport . . . I have cooperated fully with the United States federal investigation to clean up our sport [as it works] towards becoming drug free.
The letters’ release, The Guardian wrote, was an apparent “attempt by Gatlin’s camp to [emphasize] the complexities around his case and correct what they see as a misleading impression of the American sprinter.”
As it happens, the article noted, their release also followed the realization that remaining mum about well-publicized “past mistakes” was gaining Gatlin neither fans nor defenders. Owning up to the error of his ways – and, in so doing, taking ownership of the issue – would at least sate his critics’ and the media’s curiosity and permit Gatlin to focus on the task at hand: beating Bolt, who is four years his junior.
Except that he didn’t. He came in second to Bolt in both races, to the open relief of critics unwilling to forgive Gatlin no matter how many classrooms he visits or how many aspiring athletes he claims to mentor.
Instead, his critics are hearing in his written and spoken words echoes of what some see as the International Association of Athletics Federation’s (IAAF) ham-handed, late-in-the-game attempts to change the culture of doping that has come to define modern-day track and field.
The agency, the critics note, has long been accused of ignoring how dirty its sport has become. Yet Lamine Diack, its outgoing, 82-year-old, Senegalese president, opened his final congress by hitting back at accusations that, under his watch, the IAAF failed to act on evidence of widespread doping.
His successor, Lord Sebastian Coe, the legendary British miler, began his tenure with a much less bellicose stance, but soon found himself heatedly vowing to show the world that “[m]y sport is more than [urine] and blood” – only to add in a cooler moment that he plans to create an independent body to investigate doping claims and that he himself will address alleged loopholes in the rules. As Coe told The Guardian:
We do have to [recognize] there is too broad a view that – whether real or perceived – there are conflicts and loopholes. An independent system is what we need to close down any thought that we are doing anything other than being entirely vigilant.
And there it is, critics say, the common bond between the IAAF leadership and one of track’s biggest and most controversial stars: both look to be desperately seeking to gain control of a narrative that threatens to overshadow their accomplishments and dash their hopes for redemption.
When The Sunday Times and German broadcaster ARD/WDR accused the IAAF of failing to act despite knowing that doping was rampant among thousands of distance runners, Coe called the charge “a declaration of war,” according to the Telegraph.
When The Times subsequently gave the agency a heads-up on an article it planned to run involving “systematic doping among young Russian athletes,” the IAAF issued a prepublication denial citing its cooperation with the World Anti-Doping Agency’s ongoing probe of those allegations.
As the world gears up for the 2016 Olympics in Brazil, the specter of athletes obtaining an illegal, chemically aided edge looms large in the background. It doesn’t help the IAAF’s cause that the reemergence of Gatlin, a nominee for its 2014 male athlete of the year, a decision that drew much criticism, is in the forefront or that many felt that he, not Bolt, was the man to beat in the fan-favorite sprints.
Coe later admitted that the thought of a known doper defeating the sport’s poster child for clean competition “made him queasy.” He found the strength, however, to announce that a reanalysis of blood samples found that 28 athletes who competed in the 2005 and 2007 World Championships had indeed used banned substances.
He had to swallow one particularly bitter pill when he informed the world that two who failed the drug tests were among the Kenyan contingent that had topped the medal count at the tournament for the first time since 1983. Still, as Al Jazeera noted, that could be taken as a sign that the targeted testing, pushed by Coe, was having the desired effect.
So far, Coe has also managed to deflect criticism of his position as a global adviser to Nike, a role that many consider a conflict of interest. In inviting any interested party to feel free to inspect his record, Coe told The Telegraph: “I think I am probably the most transparent and open person who has ever sought office. You can go on to any number of websites. Everything I do is in the public domain.”
Coincidentally – and likely to Coe’s chagrin — Gatlin inked an endorsement deal with the same athletic-apparel giant earlier this year.
Nonetheless, just as Gatlin hoped that releasing his letters would present to the public and the press a warmer and fuzzier side of him, Coe hopes transparency will help clean up the murky IAAF reputation that he inherited.
Odds are that neither will get exactly what he wants. No amount of good deeds or strong finishes will erase Gatlin’s cheating from the record books. If anything, a string of victories at this stage in his career would likely be met with renewed suspicion.
Similarly, even Coe, renowned in his day for his staying power, is unlikely to outrun the stench left by recent IAAF administrations whose laxity and incompetence doomed all previous cleanups.
Still, Gatlin has shown that despite his time away from sprinting, he has lost very little of his speed and edge, and Coe was also regaled as a never-give-up competitor with a powerful finishing kick. So just maybe, as legions of fans undoubtedly hope, the sport will rise — cleanly — back to prominence in next year’s Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro.