Cut Justin Gatlin some slack


BEIJING — Dear friends and colleagues in the media, especially many of you in the British press: back off. Cut Justin Gatlin some real slack.

Instead of insight and the pursuit of the truth, what far too many of you have delivered instead is a simplistic caricature of events amid the 2015 world track and field championships that, regrettably, has led to the capacity to incite.

This is not good, not good at all, and if something serious happens — the warning shot was a heckler calling out Gatlin’s mom, of all people, while he was on the medal stand Monday night — it’s on you, each and all of you, in your repeated exposition of a binary “good” and “evil” narrative to the men’s 100 meters.

You don’t think such a thing is possible? Review violent events in tennis. All it takes is one crazy person.

Two nights after the epic 100, won by Bolt over Gatlin by one-hundredth of a second, the two were back center stage Tuesday night for the heats of the 200, Bolt winning his race in 20.28, Gatlin his in 20.19, both jogging to the finish.

Justin Gatlin after his 200 heat // Getty Images

Amid the action on the track, Gatlin’s agent, Renaldo Nehemiah, has said that Gatlin is considering a boycott of the British media. Candidly, such action would be fully justified. Generally speaking, their treatment of Gatlin has not just been unfair; it has been mean, indeed venomous.

If much of the British press has collectively decided they have no obligation to be fair to Gatlin — never mind the possibility, no matter how remote, of complimentary — then why would he have an obligation to interact with them?

As Nehemiah said after Sunday's race, in the tunnel underneath the Bird's Nest, "I feel badly about it because the human element is presenting itself in an ugly way. It’s really unfair."

Gatlin is the Athens 2004 Olympic 100 gold medalist, and Nehemiah said, "I just marvel at how prior to his ban and return, everybody loved him. He is a nice guy. He has never changed. Certain people in the media world paint him as an ogre. I’m like -- do you even know this man?"

To quote Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in a different context but with words so apt here: "A boycott is never an end within itself. It is merely a means to awaken a sense of shame within the oppressor but the end is reconciliation, the end is redemption."

As the great Jamaican sprint champion Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce put it after her victory Monday in the women's 100: “My message always is: no matter where you are from, no matter which past you have, it is all about your future and your goals.”

In this instance, an elemental truth ought to be so patently obvious: we do not live in a world where ogres are real, where we have to make up cautionary fairy tales masquerading as "morality plays." The truth itself is good enough, and the truth is that we live in a world that is not binary, not black and white. We live in a world of multilayered grays.

To portray Bolt as “good” and Gatlin, twice banned for doping, as “evil,” is thoroughly and dramatically irresponsible.

Four other guys ran in the 100 semifinals with time off for doping matters: Tyson Gay, Mike Rodgers, Femi Ogunode and Bolt’s own teammate, Asafa Powell. The Jamaicans named Powell a team captain! None of them got anywhere near the same level of vitriol Gatlin did. Why? Because Gatlin is faster?

To be fair: blame hardly rests on everyone in the British media. That would be overly broad. Sean Ingle of the Guardian, for instance, has repeatedly been moderate and straightforward in his reporting, including this report from the 100 final:

"It was inevitable that some would hail this a victory not just for Bolt but for clean athletics. It was understandable too, given Gatlin’s past – which includes a four-year ban for taking the banned steroid testosterone – and his startling present, which has seen him set personal bests in the 100m and 200m at 33.

"The danger is that it is both simplistic and lets other athletes off the hook. Remember 66 athletes at these world championships have served doping bans – including four in the 100m final. One victory from an athlete who has never tested positive will not change that."

This acknowledgement, too, from Tom Fordyce, the BBC's chief sports writer: "This was never good vs evil, as some tried to bill it in advance. Gatlin is a dope cheat, not a serial killer or child abuser."

Let's compare and contrast:

British legend Steve Cram, who has a lifetime of experience in the sport, both as athlete and broadcaster, shouting on the air for the BBC about Bolt’s victory as the Jamaican crossed the line, “Usain Bolt — it’s very, very tight but I think he has done it! He has saved his title, he’s saved his reputation, he may even have saved his sport. A super-hero, if he has won it. He is looking up. Usain Bolt, three times world champion!

“I’m looking around the whole stadium. I’m looking around the media tribunes,” meaning press row. “The former athletes that work in the media. Everybody on their feet.  The result that everybody wanted, except Justin Gatlin, I guess. How could we ever doubt [Bolt]?”

There is so much hyperbole there one hardly knows where to start.

Elsewhere in its pages, The Guardian quoted Cram in the second paragraph of another story on the race, under this headline: “Usain Bolt beats Justin Gatlin to 100m gold in ‘clash of good against evil’ "

More, meantime, from a different wing of the purportedly sober BBC:

No cheering in the press box? Here was the crew from BBC Live 5 Sport:  

The Telegraph, meanwhile, gave play to this tweet from the British 800-meter runner Michael Rimmer, who ran a 1:48.7 in the first round and was out:

The Telegraph, further: “This was a victory that touched a nerve across the sporting world and beyond. Athletics had its hero back and it was time to rejoice.”

The Daily Mail, the day before the race, published a story that said, in the opening paragraph: “ … stand by for sport as a freak show.” In the next paragraph, this reference: “… it’s Usain Bolt against the bearded lady, otherwise known as Justin Gatlin.” Next paragraph: “If Gatlin wins, it will be a terrible indictment of a sport that seems utterly at a loss about how to police itself. If Bolt wins, it will merely reinforce the idea that he is all that stands between athletics and oblivion.”

In its report on the race itself, under a headline that called Gatlin a “drugs cheat,” the Daily Mail declared that “by defeating the unashamed American, banned twice for drugs offenses and utterly repentant, [Bolt] landed a significant blow for clean athletes rallying against the dopers who steal their medals and in turn their money.”

The truth: referring to Gatlin, Nehemiah, speaking in the tunnel under the stadium after the 100 final, stressing, again, "He never stole any money. When he got banned, he never ran another race.”

Let us all be clear:

The best — the very best — that any of us can say about Bolt, who has been a charming and irrepressible champion since his first Olympic gold here at the Bird’s Nest seven years ago, is that he has never tested positive.

We cannot — repeat, not — say with certainty that he is “clean.”

For his part, Gatlin is not “evil.” That is over-the-top ridiculous.

Gatlin is a good guy. He got tagged twice for doping positives. The first, in 2001, came when he was 19, and was for Adderall, the prescription medicine he was taking for the attention-deficit disorder with which he had been diagnosed 10 years before.

The second, in 2006, was for testosterone, and under circumstances that have never been fully explained. The evidence in the matter does not corroborate the story that a massage therapist rubbed steroid cream on Gatlin; that, according to a read of the record, was first suggested by Gatlin’s then-coach Trevor Graham, whose credibility as a central figure in the BALCO matter has to be viewed dimly.

A more likely, if unproven, explanation is that the positive test came from a shot or a pill delivered while Gatlin was under the direct watch of Graham and assistant coach Randall Evans.

This unequivocal acknowledgment: the rules make it plain that Gatlin was liable for what’s in him, however it got there.

The rules were followed. Gatlin was sent away, into the wilderness, for four long years.

A read of the transcripts in the 2007 hearing that followed the 2006 test makes plain — from investigators to the arbitrators themselves — the belief that Gatlin did not knowingly ingest anything illicit.

When he found out he had tested positive, moreover, Gatlin immediately sought to help federal investigator Jeff Novitzky in Novitzky’s investigation of BALCO, agreeing to make undercover phone calls to Graham.

Yet the dozen or so calls Gatlin made got him no credit in his doping case — the rule at the time said that any such “substantial assistance” had to lead directly to an anti-doping agency “discovering or establishing” doping by another person.

Since that didn’t happen, Gatlin got no break.

You can maybe understand why that might -- to those who have long supported Gatlin -- seem a disconnect. Gatlin is a good guy who, when notified he had a problem, tried his very best to help the good guys do the right thing. And what did that get him for his effort? Nothing.

How does that ring in the balance of equities?

The thing about rules is this — without reference to real life, rules can easily become unjust.

This is why the call for lifetime bans is so tiresome.

Sports officials know this full well. Such bans come loaded with an assortment of challenges, including a violation of basic human rights. The International Olympic Committee president, Thomas Bach, reminded one and all of this very thing just last Friday, at a news conference here.

We live in the real world, everyone, not a world of judgment and moral high-mindedness where a young man with transgressions in his teens and early 20s has to live, re-live and keep living the past.

Gatlin, again, is now 33.

Who among us has not done things at 19, or 24, that they wish they could replay? Where is that understanding?

Where in the coverage was any attempt to portray the heartbreak Gatlin felt in 2006, and thereafter?

Or the courage it took to remain true to one’s self for the long years he was out of the sport, then the several more it took to build back to world-class speed?

Or Gatlin’s incredibly strong family ties — how his mother and father have been with him throughout the ups, the downs, everything?

That’s also why the heckling of his mother was so very wrong.

As Gatlin said Sunday night when he was asked why he went moments after the race to see his mother, Jeanette, “I didn’t say anything to my mother. Win or lose, that was my plan, to go embrace her. For the simple fact that my mother and my father,” Willie, a Vietnam vet, “have been through my ups and downs with me. For them, it has been a journey. It has been a journey for me. I’m so happy they can be at every championship I have been at. I love them. I love them.”

Where was that? Anywhere?

Or did it cut against the easy caricature of Gatlin as “evil” to write that, in fact, he is a real person, and that each and all of us are on a journey in life fraught with mistakes.

Let the words of Dr. King, as ever, ring out. The beauty — for Justin Gatlin, for all of us — is that life also offers opportunity and redemption.