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What if Gatlin was innocent?

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Katharine Merry | 09:56 UK time, Wednesday, 27 January 2010

"How do you want to be remembered?"

That was my final question when I interviewed the former Olympic and World 100m champion Justin Gatlin recently.

"That's a good question," said the 27-year-old American.

Gatlin is ready to lace up his spikes and return to the track when his four-year ban from the sport ends in July.

By the end of the season will we have seen the return of an athlete who, since the day he failed his second drug test in July 2006 for testosterone, has proclaimed his innocence?

Gatlin's story could easily give a prime-time soap opera a run for its money, with the fastest man in the world encountering lawsuits, unpaid bonuses and broken noses, with accusations of phone tapping and sabotage by his masseur.

The story looks complicated, but for some people it is very straightforward. They would argue that he is a cheat who should never set foot on a track again.

But has anyone ever wondered if he is telling the truth?

Sport is no different to society in general and there are numerous examples of people who haven't committed the crime maintaining their innocence despite what looks like contrary evidence.

Gatlin celebrates 100m gold at 2004 Athens OlympicsGatlin celebrates 100m gold at 2004 Athens Olympics

Let me make this clear, I am not saying Justin Gatlin is innocent. Only he knows the real truth.

Being coached by Trevor Graham - who was convicted in the Balco scandal - and having training partners testing positive left, right and centre, all looks bad, but Gatlin was never proven to have been involved with Balco - the company at the centre of the biggest drugs scandal of modern athletics.

It got me thinking. If, after the greatest race of my life at the Sydney Olympics, my bronze medal had been taken away from me and I'd been called a cheat and possibly a lot worse, knowing that I was 100% clean, how would that have affected me?

Would I have had the mental strength to come back from it? Diane Modahl returned after her ban was overturned in 1994 but was she ever the athlete she had once been?

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At the height of my career, could someone have set me up? Yes. Could someone have destroyed my career? Yes.

I was careful and diligent, but I had to rely on a team around me, which included medical, nutritional and coaching support. I had 100% trust in my team. Not everyone is so lucky.

I have been in athletics for 25 years and am in no way naïve. There is a massive difference between an athlete who systematically cheats and one who is caught up in cheating. It is the same as the difference between an athlete who fails a drugs test and an athlete who just misses one.

How devastating would it be to know you're telling the truth and few believe you?

Of course, people can let you down.

I truly believed, until Dwain Chambers said otherwise, that he was a victim, let down by those around him.

Of course, if you decide to surround yourself with people of questionable character and then fail a test yourself, it doesn't look good, but does it mean that you have chosen the same questionable path?

If you listened to the interview on Thursday's London Calling programme on BBC 5 live you may think I should have given Justin a tougher time and demanded that he never set foot on a track again

You might suggest that the very mention of his name is a stain on the sport.

But Justin Gatlin has maintained his innocence. What if he is telling the truth, and already served a ban that was not of his making?


  • Comment number 1.

    Interesting blog Katherine. I think many people are guilty of hearing the word drug and assuming the worse. Sometimes this is the case, but your blog has made me think what if sometimes an athlete actually didn't do it? Nice thought provoking piece.
    Do you know when exactly Gatlin can return to the sport? Going to be interesting to see how he does. Can't see him touching Bolt.
    I look forward to hearing the full interview.

  • Comment number 2.

    I agree, it has definitely got me thinking about the living hell a sportsman must go through if they didn't intentionally take drugs. I guess Diane Modahl would be a good person to ask, could be your next interview! Keep up the good work Katherine, still don't understand why we don't see you BBC's Athletics coverage!

  • Comment number 3.

    You're known by the company you keep. If you're in a drug then and the police raid then you'll be arrested along with the criminals even if you're only there because they make a mean cup of tea.

    Sure he may be innocent but by association with one of the most controversial figures in the sport, many will find it hard to believe.

    Being a professional sportsman must be difficult. Anyone can sabotage you . . . especially the ones you trust. That massage oil the masseur is using? What's in it? That supplement the coach gives you, what's in that? You have to even wonder about over-the-counter remedies for common complaints.


  • Comment number 4.

    As we are now guaranteed to host the Olympics, couldn't we include our own (BOAs) rules and ban anyone who has ever failed a drugs test from competing in 2012?

  • Comment number 5.


    No. The olympics is administered by the IOC and organised by Locog. If there were any suggestion that the IOC were being dictated to they'd have no hesitation taking the games away.

  • Comment number 6.

    I actually agree 100%. I used to box professionally, and used to rely fully and completely on the advice of my team.

    Whatever they told me to do, or whatever supplement they gave me, I was very naieve and just assumed they were abiding by WADA/drug testing laws.

    They are professional trainers, at the top of their game. Who am I to question their methods?

    Does this mean he’s innocent, no?

    Is it possible for an athlete to be giving performance enhancers as part of their general programme, without their knowledge? Completely and utterly.

    Modern drug taking is as little as someone rubbing cream into your skin. Your coach is rubbing a lotion into your skin after a race. Do you question it?

    I believe fully that some athletes are just victims of their coaches desire for success and results

  • Comment number 7.

    Surely it's down to the athletes to make sure what they eat and what is put in or on their body has no illegal substances. They also have to be tested a few times a year so if there is any doubt then it is their own fault. Come on if he was hanging around with other people he knew or suspected they were taking these drugs then he is very stupid. Why can't people take responsibility for their own actions. Maybe he was duped into taking them but then why didn't he tell the authorities the people who did this to him!!

    Don't forget Chambers protested his innocence for a long time before saying he took drugs. All athletes know the rules and regulations. A lot of UK athletes have UK tax payers money to help them. If they are found guilty then I think they should be sued for every penny they were given and hung out to dry. They enjoy a lot of benefits travelling the world representing their country or getting appearance money and prize money so it's not all bad for them.

    It seems we are in a blameless society now blaming everyone else apart from ourselves.

  • Comment number 8.

    Unfortunately this is the down side to strict liability regarding positive drugs tests, the athlete is 100% responsible, if they don't trust their team then why stick with it?
    Being surrounded by other positive drugs cheats does nothing to strengthen the view of an individuals evidence.
    Until Drugs cheats realise they will get caught at some point or another then although harsh, strict liability and the burden of proof are the only methods.

  • Comment number 9.

    I dont think I have heard of an athlete failing a drug test not protesting their innocence. This only happens when the failed tests are corroborated by undeniable events.
    Those getting caught are the tip of the iceberg. Anybody who has been seriously involved in track and field knows this or they are extremely naive.

  • Comment number 10.

    I have often wondered, working in science as I do, of the possibilities of false positives, of cross reactivity in tests and even of naturally occurring hormonal inconsistencies. If an athlete is at the top of their game then who is to say that certain hormones may not be naturally elevated in some people who push their bodies to the very limit of their endurance and physical abilities. Who is to say that an increased testosterone level isn't a body reaction to the physical stress it is put under? While yes this is all conjecture, I feel sorry for athletes as every single thing in their lives must be under such intense scrutiny as all it would technically take to ruin someones career is one contaminated food supplement or a sabotage of one sports drink. Surely though, a clean athlete can take their own regular blood and urine samples to store for proving it was a one off incident and thus argue sabotage or ignorance? I also must be hard to focus on doing your best when others may be taking enhancing drugs but just have better chemists which can hide the evidence?? Not sure there's an easy answer though!

  • Comment number 11.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 12.

    Re No.9

    I don't know much about athletics per se, but I did hear a very good report on Radio 4 just before the Beijing Olympics called 'Something in the Blood' that seemed to suggest you are right.

    Before I heard the documentary, I was sure in my mind that Dwain Chambers shouldn't represent Great Britain and wanted his lawsuit trying to overturn his ban to fail. Having heard the doc. though, I was convinced that he should have been going. I was left with the overwhelming impression that pretty much everyone was doing it and he was just unlucky enough to get caught. However, perhaps the worst aspect highlighted by the programme was the laboratory testing itself.

    In one study, carried out by a Danish university, a group of urine samples was sent for testing at various labs, and half of them didn't detect the drugs, or were described as not being competent enough to interpret the results properly. Thus, any athlete's samples tested by these labs would, or at least could, show as negative even though they were abnormal, as was the case here. Similarly, a clean sample could be mis-interpreted. All the labs in the study were WADA approved and used by them. Not only this, but another study - can't remember if it was related - found that drugs such as EPO would show virtually undetectable levels in the blood or urine after only 24-48 hours, yet a control group of subjects was described as feeling the beneftis for 'months'.

    So, yes, Gatlin could be innocent, as could many others. The corollary is that many more could be guilty and simply not caught. And as for relying on your team - I seem to remember a few years ago that Greg Rusedski was 'outed' by the ATP for having failed a drugs test, and it then transpired that the offending chemical was present in a dietary supplement recommended by the ATP itself.

    Enough to make me a bit cynical, I'm afraid. But if you get a chance to listen to the documentary, then do. Not sure if it available on iplayer or some archive or other - perhaps you could help, Katherine?

  • Comment number 13.

    NACKINGTON: Well done on one of the most redundant comments ever seen on these pages, and that's truly saying something.

    Christie was found to have nandrolone, which could have come from many sources, in his system at a time when he had been retired for several years. To label him as a 'drugs cheat' after his years of service to athletics just shows you up as ignorant and unworthy of the time it takes to counter your pathetic 'argument'.

    A good blog, and a situation very similar to that of Floyd Landis.

  • Comment number 14.

    the problem is most athletes found positive for drugs protest their innocence, so which ones should we believe and which ones shouldn't we believe? You can't apply one rule to one and another to other athletes. He was found guilty, he serves the penalties, and yes his reputation is tarnished. Otherwise what about all the other "drug cheats" who claim they are innocent? Should we let them all off because they might be innocent or trust the system to punish people found guilty of taking drugs? I doubt we will ever have a 100% perfect system, and much like the judicial system some innocent people are found guilty, but the alternative is to be soo cautious that some guilty people get found innocent just to make sure that only guilty people are found guilty.

    That was a bit of a ramble, sorry!!

  • Comment number 15.

    I am intrigued by this article. So many athletes,when caught cheating, claim their innocence. Why has Justin Gatlin's case made you think "well hang on a minute..." Do you know something we don't???

  • Comment number 16.

    Ultimately my opinion on drug's cheats are quite simple, if you believe in the governing rules then treat the athletes by them. The rules are such that Gatlin can come back and whilst I'll always regard him as a drug's cheat (because that's what he is) I would have no problem with him achieving success again in athletics. Regarding Gatlin as innocent or guilty is pretty much irrelevant - he's not getting those four years of his life back on the track. He has, in a sense, served his time and good luck to him coming back and doing well.

  • Comment number 17.

    Let's think about a solution to the ongoing issue of athletes not knowing if they are being given something outside the laws of the sport.

    How about the governing body providing a list of medical advisers athletes can refer any supplements/oils etc. to for verification, then if they have any worries they can find out the truth before they get duped and banned.

    The need to comply with this second opinion will answer once and for all whether the athlete is being honest. That is, "if you don't ask - don't claim innocence"

    It is totally naive to think that athletes don't know there is a problem of drugs in their sport and the watch words should be... "if you don't know or understand what a substance is (or you think somebody may be doping you without permission), you must ask for help"

  • Comment number 18.

    Hi all.
    I am glad that the blog has provoked some thought. I still feel though even after our 5Live London Calling programme last week, where my interview was aired and discussed, that some people have not cottoned onto the fact that the blog was written from the "what if?" perspective.
    What if an athlete is sabotaged and subsequently fails a test?
    Whilst researching for my interview with Gatlin there were some grey areas that made me think back to former team mate Diane Modahl, who was eventually proven innocent of any wrong doing.
    We can see from the responses that some will always see a failed test as the athletes fault. Some point out the complex nature of tests. I doubt, as kasbah says above, that we will ever have a 100% perfect system.
    Some innocent athletes will find themselves embroiled in drug scandals and some drug taking athletes will potentially get away with it.

    I believe that Gatlin is cleared to run from the 25th July this year.
    Evan Byrne:
    Sounds interesting I will try and track down the documentary.
    I do not know more than anyone else regarding Gatlin's case but it is interesting as he is returning to the track. Most athletes in his position would not think they could replicate performances if they had been taking drugs. I found this intriguing.

  • Comment number 19.

    Gatlin has been failed driugs tests TWICE, it's not like this was a one off.

    A very thought provoking piece but the "what if" factor could ultimately could be applied to any court case in history. You base the ultimate decision on the amount of evidence you have. Finger prints on the syringe?? That's proof!... oh no but WHAT IF you had been set up and somebody had stolen a syringe you once used an planted it.... etc etc anything can be broken down.

    At the end of the day you have to take responsibility for what is in your body, that is the WADA Mantra. You have to live by it

    If you place yourself in groups who practice illegal activity then you are at fault if you end up tied in with them, no one else.

    I don't hang around with criminals as I don't want the police to think I might be involved in a crime

  • Comment number 20.

    I think justin should be allowed to return, he has done his time and had to deal with the consquences of not being able to compete in what were expected to be his best years as a sprinter. Everyone knows what has been done or been misunderstood about. I feel that a number of athletes have been caught in other countries and still been allowed to compete, everyone makes mistakes and you have to learn from them. As for dwain chambers i think its brilliant on how he has come back with a record in the european indoors last year and clean, it should be an example on how people can change there ways and prove they can do it clean

  • Comment number 21.

    An interesting point of view. You would be supporting the view of "innocent despite be prve guilty".... We shoudln't be surprised by this, it happens every day somewhere in the judical system where a "miscarriage of justice" occurs with surprising regularity...If it can happen in society, why should sport be immune to it.
    Athlectics, like all sports is big money nowadays, winning gold medals is alomost akin to gauranteeing wealth, and where money is concerned criminality follows.
    Remember back in the late 80's and 90's there was a promoter from this country who pretty much ruled athletics in europe, he made the rules, he decided who got tested, he could certainly have decided who got caught,whether they were a drug cheat or not...
    Mr Gaitlin got caught and as you rightly say only he knows the truth of it..However, if he does return will we be once again treated to the vitrolic dialogue of messers Cram and Edwards and their whiter than white world of athletics!!

  • Comment number 22.

    The question of whether Justin Gatlin is culpable is made grimmer by the fact that as a teenager, he was found with abused substance in his system and his alibi was that he had taken medicine for Attention Deficit Disorder. Once bitten twice shy! It was his responsibility thereafter to ensure that he didn't walk anywhere close to 'questionnable' characters or their trails. Hence, even if he were not guilty, his shame would still be on his own hands.

  • Comment number 23.

    Did you think that Gatlin, who failed two drugs test, was going to tell you that he was guilty as charged? Get real now.

    bullet monkey
    don't you know that christie had psuedo-ephedrine in his system in Seoul and was allowed to remain in the competition by the IOC disciplinary committee by only one vote?

    'Christie was found to have nandrolone, which could have come from many sources'. Mmmmm of course it could. He was 100 times the natural level expected! Which sources did you have in mind?

  • Comment number 24.

    In a way you could compare this to the Landis situation albeit he has now admitted his guilt - despite producing his book protesting his innocence. For me there is never smoke without fire and as such athletes should question everything they are told to take by nutritionalists/coaches. Do the IOC/UKA have a testing facility where athletes can send supplements they have been told to take to ensure that there are no banned substances? I'd also like to know whether athletes supply all the supplements they have been taking if they do fail a test?

    Reason Landis' name is relevant is that now if someone vehemently denies the charge you still couldn't give them the benefit of the doubt as Landis even lied in court - as did Marion Jones.

    I just can't make my mind up whether the likes of Gatlin and Chambers should be now invited to all the big meets or not. Part of me does feel that they have served their time and missed out on not just a lot of history but doing something that they thoroughly enjoy. The other part of me feels that if they are allowed back to the big money meets and seen to be earning good money again than the deterrant for youngsters who are faced with difficult choices is slightly reduced.

    The thing I just can't get over with the Christie case is the fact that he'd virtually retired and wasn't competing in major events so what was the point - it wasn't as if he needed the money!

  • Comment number 25.

    When I hear of a sportsperson providing a positive drug test many thoughts go through my mind.
    I don`t ,at first, assume they are guilty of knowingly ingesting the substance.
    I like to study the facts.All of them.Reasons,opportunity,peer pressure,fame,wealth,mistakes etc.
    Of all the sprtspeople who have allegedly provided positive drug tests in the last 20 years.There is one athlete who allegedly provided a positive test.
    The circumstances surrounding this athlete have continually been ignored.
    All the circumstantial evidence and obvious common sense seems to have been ignored.
    The question....Why was the drug supposedly taken , the type of drug , the time of year , the various bodily tests [ hair follicle , blood etc]
    all pointed out that there was an obvious mistake.
    The way the urine sample was stored and transported.The advice given to the Athlete from a U.K.A appointed solicitor.i.e not to bring various things to the publics attention.Not to mention various names.
    In short...the duty of care that should have been shown by U.K.A to this athlete was none existant.
    The fact that the scores of drug tests before and after the allegedly positive sample were negative.
    My one wish before I leave this Earth would be that someone in the athletics fraternity would re-open this innocent athletes case and really get to the bottom of it.
    It is so difficult to go through life not knowing .It is far more difficult when all the so called intellegent people in our sport...ignore the obvious because to investigate would upset to many big names in the sport.
    If any curious person would like more info about this athlete, or circumstances please e-mail me.


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