A Duke tennis player's case and fairness for Justin Gatlin

A few days ago, the International Tennis Federation announced that Spencer Furman, a Duke sophomore, had been cleared in a doping case leveled after he tested positive last September 9 after losing in three sets in the first round of the qualifying draw of the Atlantic Tire Championships, an ATP challenger, in Cary, N.C.

Long story short: Furman was using a prescribed ADHD medicine “to help him concentrate while studying at university,” according to the ITF release. This medicine, Vyvanse, contained a stimulant, D-amphetamine, on the banned list. Oops. He applied for a retroactive Therapeutic Use Exemption. 

When agreed by the World Anti-Doping Agency and the anti-doping agency at issue, a retroactive TUE may be granted “on the grounds of fairness.” WADA so agreed. The charge was dropped.


So what?

Ladies and gentlemen, this is exactly — exactly — the fact pattern that got the sprinter Justin Gatlin a one-year suspension when he was a college kid at Tennessee in 2001. 

Justin Gatlin // Getty Images

Justin Gatlin // Getty Images

And you wonder why some people howl that the doping system isn’t fair. 

You wonder why people whisper that track people get treated one way and the privileged — word used deliberately — tennis people another.

Is it true, really, as people whisper, that white tennis stars get treated one way, and black track athletes can get treated another?

Maria Sharapova: two-year ban for meldonium reduced to 15 months after Court of Arbitration for Sport determines she acted with “no significant fault.” 

Justin Gatlin, a year or so for the exact same thing that a white tennis player at Duke got off for. 

You wonder why, again, Gatlin has been demonized, relentlessly, unfairly, when the first of his two doping matters should never have been a doping case. Ever. 

To make things right, the authorities should retroactively wipe Gatlin's first doping case off the books. Especially if, now, the white kid from Duke is getting off scot-free. Fairness demands nothing less. 

Here is the quirk in the rules by which Spencer Furman is able to get a retroactive TUE and Justin Gatlin not: 

Justin Gatlin is really good and Spencer Furman, at least for now, not nearly good enough. 

This is absurd. 

That is, retroactive TUEs are typically available for athletes who are not -- repeat, not -- international- or national-level athletes. 

Take this to a logical conclusion:

The white tennis kid is not good enough to crack the rankings. The black sprinter is. Their 'doping' cases are the same. Yet the white kid gets the break. 

What about that makes sense? 

You see why rational, logical people want to scream "unfair" if not worse?

Here are the undisputed, uncontested facts of the first Gatlin doping matter, spelled out in the record of an arbitration hearing: 

Gatlin has ADD, or attention deficit disorder. He was diagnosed at age 9. As the record said at the time, he “has been taking prescribed medication for this condition ever since.”

For the five years preceding 2001, Gatlin had been taking Adderall, prescribed by his doctor. Adderall contains an amphetamine on the banned list.

For those scientifically inclined: Adderall and Vyvanse are chemically similar.

The panel: “There is no dispute that Mr. Gatlin suffers from ADD and that the medication taken by him was an appropriate treatment for his condition.”

Gatlin had two summer school classes he needed to complete to keep his UT track scholarship. He had midterms the week of June 11, 2011, before the USATF junior nationals. He was tested June 16 and 17. 

Gatlin took Adderall to help him study for the midterms. He did not take it for three days before the track meet. He was “nevertheless unaware that there was still the possibility that detectable amounts of the medicine could exist in his urine.”

The panel: “As it turned out … small amounts of amphetamine, less than 200 nanograms per milliliter” turned up in the June 16 sample. The June 17 sample “contained even smaller amounts,” the “decreasing amounts ... consistent with … having stopped taking his medication on or about June 13.”

“Mr. Gatlin never sought any medical exemption from the IAAF,” the panel noted.

Ah. But — neither did Mr. Furman from the ITF until after he tested positive, right?

“Based on the medical experts’ opinion in this case, it is not unreasonable for this Panel to assume that, if requested, the exemption likely would have been granted,” the panel added, referring to Gatlin.

Moreover, the panel also said, Gatlin surely did “disclose his prescription medicine to his doctor at the University of Tennessee.”

Indeed, “Rather than to seek a medical exemption, the course of action followed by most athletes with ADD is simply to discontinue their medication in advance of a competition. This is what Mr. Gatlin did. USADA advises athletes after consultation with their physicians to discontinue using the ADD medication prior to competition in order for the medication to clear their system. Mr. Gatlin’s doctor did not know how far in advance of competing Mr. Gatlin should stop taking his medication.”

The panel continued:

“While Mr. Gatlin may have violated the IAAF anti-doping rules in that he did not first seek an exemption from the IAAF for his medication before he competed, he certainly is not a doper. This panel would characterize Mr. Gatlin’s inadvertent violation of the IAAF’s rules based on uncontested facts as, at most, a ‘technical’ or a ‘paperwork’ violation.”

It nonetheless imposed a 14-month suspension. As things would turn out, Gatlin would appeal to the IAAF for early reinstatement, which granted that request in July 2002, almost a year to the day after his tests had been reported positive.

And yet it said: 

“This panel is very concerned that Mr. Gatlin’s reputation not be unnecessarily tarnished as a result of this decision. Anti-doping rules are like other sporting rules in that sometimes there are adverse consequences even when an athlete is not at fault. The Panel specifically notes that, in this case, Mr. Gatlin neither cheated nor did he intend to cheat. He did not intend to enhance his performance nor, given his medical condition, did his medication in fact enhance his performance. At most, his mistake was in not raising his medical condition for a review with the appropriate authorities before the race, instead of after it. This Panel requires that this fact be made clear in any public release describing or relating to this decision.”

In the 17 years since, Gatlin’s reputation has been tarnished, specifically because this 2001 case ridiculously made him a two-striker when — in a matter whose facts still remain in contentious dispute — he tested positive in 2006. 

As for his mistake being not raising his medical condition before the race instead of after — Spencer Furman raised his condition afterward instead of before, and now Spencer Furman finds himself out of doping jail. 

To reiterate:

What would be really equitable is for Justin Gatlin to get a retroactive look at that first case and have it wiped off his record. 

The doping system has to be fair. To everyone. Otherwise, it loses credibility.

In this instance, the credibility gap is significant. There’s a real cost to that. To the system. 

And to Justin Gatlin.

None of that is fair, and none of that is right.