The messy glory of a born-again track star


The messy glory of a born-again track star

Should sportspersons who have a history of drugs be allowed a second chance to sprint to victory?


Allan Jacob

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Published: Thu 10 Aug 2017, 8:55 PM

Last updated: Thu 10 Aug 2017, 11:24 PM

Beats me when sporting cheats win. I'm left stricken when they rig the system or when the let the system rigs it for them - remember Lance Armstrong and his cycling cartel and the state-backed high of the Russian athletics mob at the Sochi Winter Games who switched tainted pee samples with clean ones three years ago? The Russian doping machine's dream run was exposed by a whistleblower and the full story can now be viewed in its ugly glory on the Netflix documentary Icarus. But I wonder why not enough is being documented about the American coaching system that pushed drugs to its athletes and made them fake heroes. Perhaps, we choose not to remember, yet it beats us all when years of sweat and toil are wasted because some trickster takes the fast track to get to the top of the podium using performance enhancing drugs.

Recently, it hurt even more when Justin Gatlin dashed Usain Bolt's hopes of signing off in style at the World Athletics Championships in London. I had to vent my spleen, get it out of the system - like Gatlin did with his drugs before he sought redemption with this run which he thought would make athletics proud. He was impressed, I was left fuming. Millions around the world were gutted. The next thing I knew I was mailing an editorial for the paper on my day off which I signed off with: 'What a shame!' Nice way to end it, I thought, but no one took note and I wasn't I surprised that it didn't go viral. The Sports Editor, glanced at the edit and said I should let it be. Gatlin was the better athlete of the evening, so spare me the righteous anger, he suggested. I know public memory is short when it comes to past transgressions but this winner takes-all-attitude that we have come to accept roils me no end.

Let me make things clear here before I continue with my rant. There is nothing personal about my dislike for Gatlin; it's just about the way he went about his athletic achievements after being caught out - first in college and later in 2006 when he was banned for eight years after steroids were found in his body. A legal appeal ensured it was whittled down to four. Truth is, he was a serial drugs cheat, and there's no dilemma for me as a writer in putting it across to him. What angers me more, makes me ashamed is that he showed no remorse when he should be hanging his head in shame. He slipped away with a light punishment the first time he was caught by saying he was taking drugs for attention deficit disorder.

The second, more serious offence involved testosterone allegedly administered by a massage therapist. The runner claimed he didn't know of the contents of the cream rubbed on him despite the World Anti-doping Agency (Wada) clearly listing it in its banned list of substances. Steroids are definitely out for athletes during season or out of it. What's interesting here is Gatlin was coached by Trevor Graham, who also happened to mentor drug-inspired world beaters like Marion Jones and Tim Montgomery in the late nineties. Jones won five medals, including three gold at the Sydney Olympics (which were taken away in 2008 after it was proven she won unfairly). Investigators found that she used a substance, a steroid called THG supplied to her by her then coach Graham, who was also later banned from coaching. Jones even served 6 months in jail for lying under oath.

Jones's conviction stemmed from what was known as the Balco (Bay Area Laboratory Cooperative) scandal, which came down like a ton on bricks on the sports establishment in the United States. Balco was a company which disguised drugs as supplements and worked with coaches and trainers of sports personalities from 1988 to 2002 before its owner Victor Conte was busted by federal agencies.

Track stars like Dwain Chambers, Regina Chambers, Kelli White and others were in the biggest doping scandal in America's sporting history. Balco's drug tentacles spread to boxing and the baseball. Some stars served jail terms, others were slapped with two-year bans, while a majority got away with a rap on the wrists - nothing serious to damage their careers.

For the record, the United States ditched its official doping programme for athletes in the eighties - anyone who remembers Florence Griffith Joyner's run to fame at the Seoul Olympics in 1988 will know what I'm talking about. Her record of 21.60 seconds in the women's 200 metres and 10.49 secs in 100 metres is unbroken to this day. She quit athletics at the height of her fame soon after but her death from a cardiac arrest ten years later raised some uncomfortable questions about her records and how she achieved them. She was only 38 when she died and it is believed the ghost of Flo-Jo haunts women's sprints.

Since then new systems have evolved. Detection techniques have improved, so have ways to make drugs safe and untraceable in athletes. Country backed programmes have given way to corporate programmes in sport. After the Balco episode, Nike's Oregon Project for middle distance runners is in the spotlight following a New York Times report which says it is secretive and supervised by Alberto Salazar in partnership with the sports giant.

Anti-doping agents have been investigating it since 2015 while its officials deny any links to drugs and new untraceable substances that give athletes an unfair edge in competitions.

Mo Farah is a student of the project and is already a legend in long distance events like the 5,000 metres and 10,000 metres. The probe into the Nike project does not make him a suspect but there is a lingering cloud over the role of corporates in sports and the win-all culture they are breeding.

At 35, Gatlin, is a product of that culture that is focused used on winning at any cost. What's remarkable is that he can still clock 9.92 seconds to beat the world record holder who is four years junior to him.

Studies have shown that the effects of steroids could have a long-term performance enhancing impact on athletes. Who knows, Gatlin might have been assisted by the banned substances that he once used but does not show up in his system.

It would be naive to assume that doping is a phenomenon of the past. Former drug cheats from the US are running free. Only the Russians were not permitted to compete as a team at the world athletics in London. Should they be given a second chance? Certainly not. If the Russians didn't make it to the starting block this time, so should American cheaters like Justin Gatlin. Oust them from the track for life and reset their records. There's no harm starting all over again.

Allan is a news junkie. He loves a good debate

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