A lifetime ban for athletes for doping is a non-starter, and other cultural differences

LONDON — The marathon course here at these 2017 IAAF world championships started and finished at Tower Bridge. Just a few steps away, of course, is Tower Hill, where the likes of Anne Boleyn met her fate.

It’s fascinating, those historical and cultural markers that, in turn, frame — consciously or otherwise — national identity.

In Britain, one might argue, right is right, wrong is wrong, rules are rules, black is black, white is white. When you make a mistake, it’s off with your head. You wonder why the Pilgrims wanted out? The United States, by definition, is a land of second chances. The American national narrative— the founding national story, told over and again — is redemption.

To be clear: find fault all you want with these oversimplifications. Detail, if you please, the countless exceptions.

Even so, it’s abundantly clear that such cultural differences can play a key role in the perspectives and reactions to the big story dominating these 2017 worlds, Justin Gatlin’s 100-meter victory over Usain Bolt, and by extension the issue of performance-enhancing drugs in track and field.

Christian Coleman, Justin Gatlin and Usain Bolt on the medals stand // Getty Images for IAAF

Christian Coleman, Justin Gatlin and Usain Bolt on the medals stand // Getty Images for IAAF

The women’s 1500-meter final late Monday is all but sure to re-open that discussion. Track and field insiders have long known that, for all the talk about the men’s 100, the women’s 1500 might be the most suspect race in the sport.

Six of the top nine finishers in the women’s 1500 at the 2012 London Olympics have been linked to illicit performance-enhancing drugs. It’s why an athlete like the American Jenny Simpson, the first American ever to win an Olympic medal in the women’s 1500, bronze last summer in Rio, second in Monday’s race with a brilliant lap-last kick, is the unequivocal feel-good story — there is zero question, zero, that Jenny Simpson does it right, and does it clean.


Jenny Simpson, right, at the finish line of the women’s 1500 // Getty Images for IAAF

Jenny Simpson, right, at the finish line of the women’s 1500 // Getty Images for IAAF

The British press, by and large, has depicted Bolt vs. Gatlin as a titanic struggle of good vs. evil. That has no basis in fact.

Nonetheless, the sport’s establishment — responding in large measure to the British press — has for years now picked up on that message, and further perpetuated it.

The crowds here booed Gatlin. He has been depicted here for years as a cartoon-like villain when, in truth, he is a super-decent guy with loving parents, a school-age son and a close, nurturing inner circle.

Moreover, in Saturday’s race, after Gatlin won — to reiterate, Gatlin was the winner — the announcer found and interviewed Bolt. Did the announcer interview the new gold medalist? No.

And here the British purportedly pride themselves on such good manners.

What’s the word for that sort of behavior? Rude.

So interesting — who did the announcer interview Monday night, immediately upon her victory in the women’s hammer throw? That would be Poland’s Anita Wlodarczyk. Similarly, after Monday’s men’s 110-meter hurdles? The winner, Jamaica’s Omar McLeod.

What’s the word for that? Hypocrisy.


Yohan Blake of Jamaica, the 2011 worlds 100 winner, also ran in that 100 final Saturday, finishing fourth; he was back on the track Monday, winning his 200 heat in 20.39. Blake served a three-month ban in connection with a positive test for a stimulant.

There were no boos, either, for Amantle Montsho of Botswana, the 2011 world champion in the women’s 400, who ran 51.28 in the women’s semifinals Monday night. During her race, the third of the three semifinals, the announcer highlighted Montsho’s 2011 win as she sped around the first turn; after the race, he noted that her 51.28 was a season’s best (she nonetheless did not advance). Montsho served two years off — “two years of misery,” she has said — after testing positive for the stimulant methylhexanamine at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Scotland.

In comparing the crowd reaction here to Gatlin, it’s hardly just Montsho or Blake who could be cited as examples.

What’s the phrase that comes to mind? Double standard.

To his credit, Gatlin — throughout the weekend — repeatedly paid homage and tribute to Bolt. In turn, Bolt paid big respect to Gatlin.

The sport itself not only could but should take up a great deal about appropriate conduct from the way these two held forth this past weekend.

Also from the quiet message the IAAF president, Seb Coe, delivered to Gatlin amid the presentation of the gold medal.

“Well done,” Coe said to Gatlin, looking up at him atop the podium. “I know this cannot have been easy for you tonight.”

Elsewhere, in the press, Coe was once again staking out this position as president of the international federation:

"I'm never going to ... close the door on the thought that we could end up one day with a lifetime ban.”

This not only makes for good copy, it’s also an Anne Boleyn-style position that Coe genuinely holds dear. He is “unreconstructed” on the matter, he says.

That said, it’s not going to happen.

The president of the IAAF is fully entitled to seem as vigilant as politics might suit. At the same time, the anti-doping arena involves facts, rules and process.

And process — boring as it may be, and it often is, but process is essential.

The World Anti-Doping Code is the product of literally thousands of hours of consultation. In getting to a document that hundreds of people from all over the world could agree upon, the code must account for all kinds of cultural differences.

To borrow a bit from criminal law, which is a starting place but not — repeat, not — an exact match, in trying to build a system, you have to ask, what it is you’re trying to do?

Criminal law involves basic objectives: retribution (bad guys ought to be punished); deterrence (obvious); incarceration (keeping criminals away from society); rehabilitation (giving people that second chance); and restoration (example: an embezzler is ordered to pay back his or her victim).

It’s not just enough to say: life ban.

That might accomplish one objective. But it doesn’t get at any of the others.

Moreover, to impose a life ban on top of whatever sanction an athlete might get amounts to a double punishment. That’s not OK.

The IAAF has tested this notion repeatedly, perhaps most famously in the matter of the U.S. sprinter LaShawn Merritt, the Beijing 2008 men’s 400-meter gold medalist who struggled this year with a plantar fasciitis injury and did not advance out of Sunday night’s semifinals in the same event.

After the Beijing Games, Merritt spent 21 months off; he tested positive for a banned substance found in a penis-enhancement substance he bought at a 7-Eleven.

Consider: seriously now, does LaShawn Merritt deserve to be banned for life because he bought ExtenZe at a convenience store?

Note: no boos Sunday for Merritt, either.

As the Merritt matter underscores, it’s a better approach to address doping matters not as black and white but, rather, a series of grays. Everything involves context. Justice must be applied individually — which, not so incidentally, is a principle worth considering in assessing the many and several runners, jumpers and throwers from Russia.

See Russia’s Sergey Shubenkov, second in Monday’s hurdles, behind McLeod, running here as an “Authorized Neutral Athlete.”

As the Merritt, Gatlin and Shubenkov cases also make plain -- when you consider everyone's cases individually, when you consider the facts involved, when you deal with each person as a real human being instead of a cartoon villain, then you also offer the chance for redemption.

Each is a medal winner since sanction (in Shubenkov's case, to be clear, the sanction relates to his nation).

Extrapolating out to the big picture:

Track and field is not dying, and there’s no hard evidence it is at any more at risk from doping now than before.

Certainly, it must confront significant doping-related challenges — but these often connect, again, to cultural differences, in particular the willingness in differing parts of the world to confront illicit performance-enhancing drug use and, more, find the financial resource as well as human capital to do something about it.

This goes well beyond sport, though for sure this is a matter of athlete education, a key IAAF focus, and here again a quiet comment from Coe to Gatlin, given Gatlin’s association in his early 20s with Trevor Graham, who would prove one of the key figures in the BALCO case:

“Maybe,” Coe told Gatlin, on the thought that Gatlin had learned a great deal over the years that might be worth sharing with younger athletes, “at some stage you and I can catch up some time.”

For emphasis, track and field’s issues with doping extend way, way, way beyond Gatlin — because in every country but the United States, Olympic-style sport is an arm of a federal ministry. That means governments must play a key role in any solution.

At any rate, track and field’s No. 1 problem goes way, way, way beyond doping. It’s relevance. It needs to find new ways to engage young people.

These championships have proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that a well-run event, at a first-rate facility, well-publicized and -marketed, can draw capacity crowds. But that’s just the starting line.

There are considerable challenges here in the event presentation itself. And then to go beyond — when the circus packs up and leaves Olympic Stadium.

Track and field has a great example of how to do that — the picture of Bolt, in bronze medal position on the podium, clapping for Gatlin.

That’s respect.

That’s what this is supposed to be about.

Here in London, the United States, Jamaica, Botswana, everywhere.

No arguing about that.