Christian Coleman, and recasting the media narrative

DOHA, Qatar — The day after 23-year-old Christian Coleman became The Man, king of the 100 meters, the biggest deal in track and field, he was still the same guy he had been, always was, a grounded and sensible young man from a great American family.

As he made the rounds Sunday at the Team USA hotel, this was the Coleman ‘entourage’: his mom, Daphne, who holds a Ph.D. in education and is an instructional coach in the Atlanta schools; his dad, Seth, who is the media relations manager for the Atlanta public school system; an agent; and a manager. 

Where was the wacky scene so long associated with Usain Bolt? Where was the commotion? Where was — all of that?

People, don’t misunderstand. 

Christian Coleman is not Bolt, and the time has come for everyone to understand that is a good thing. 

The time is also now for everyone to understand that Coleman has been nothing but a good dude, and that the media narrative that has enveloped him to a significant degree over the past several weeks — totally unfairly — needs to be recast, particularly because Coleman’s victory Saturday at these IAAF 2019 championships arguably makes him the face of track and field heading into the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics.

Christian Coleman with his father, Seth, and mother, Daphne

Christian Coleman with his father, Seth, and mother, Daphne

“Honestly,” Coleman said, referring to the notion of being the 100 champion, “it kind of just feels surreal, because to be a world champion and the amount of work that was put in to get to this point, and come out on top of a field like that, with that list of guys — it’s incredible. It hasn’t sunk in yet. I’m in shock.”

Coleman won the race in a runaway 9.76 seconds. That time, a personal best, is also sixth-fastest ever. 

Justin Gatlin, the 2017 world champion, finished second in 9.89. Canada’s Andre DeGrasse took third, in 9.90. 

Two years ago, at the worlds in London, Gatlin won, with Coleman second. Bolt, in his final championship 100, got third. Bolt is not here in Doha. On Saturday, the two Americans again went 1-2 but flipped the script, Coleman — who is also the 2018 Birmingham world indoor 60-meter champion — crossing first. 

“Christian has had a spectacular season, and I knew he’d be tough to beat,” Gatlin, ever gracious, said afterward. “He ran a great race, but I have a message for next year — I’m coming. He’d better be ready.”

Gatlin, mind you, is 37. He turns 38 in February. Bet against Gatlin being on the podium in Tokyo at your peril.

To win a world-class race, meanwhile, especially a world-championship race, by 13-hundredths of a second is — dominance. 

Coleman essentially had the race won out of the blocks but knew it was his at 30 meters. 

“When I knew I had separation from Gatlin,” Coleman was saying Sunday, “from that point I just had to tell myself to relax, stay composed, be relaxed. I knew I would be able to maintain.”

When he crossed the line, Coleman led out a primal roar. 

He laughed Sunday thinking about the moment. “It’s not one of those things you think about before. When you come across the line, you are super-excited but you are also at this place of relief. People were expecting me to win. That feels different from not expecting to win.”

He added after a moment, “I don’t know — just a sigh of relief and that type of moment where there are a lot of feelings going through your head and there’s just a roar of just joy, really. That’s how I would sum it up — just joy.”

This brings us to the narrative, which for Coleman and his family — and the sport — has proven anything but joyful.

And all of it so unnecessarily. 

USADA sought to bring a case against Coleman for three so-called whereabouts violations. That would have rendered him ineligible.

There’s one reason, and only one, in trying to take out the man who would be the 100 sprint king — to send a message to all athletes that no one is above the rules.

Coleman, to be clear, has never tested positive for any illicit substance. 

The problem, meantime, is that USADA did not understand the very rules it was seeking to use against Coleman. For an agency whose mandate is understanding the rules, this is fundamental. 

When it realized it had overreached, it turned to WADA to say, hey, are these the rules? WADA said, yes, these are the rules. At that point, USADA dropped the case. Coleman has since said that USADA chief executive Travis Tygart called him to apologize for the organization “not moving in a professional manner.” 

By then, though, Coleman had suffered significant damage to his reputation. 

So — where is the public apology from USADA? Where is accountability from USADA in the very same manner that USADA demands from the athletes it regulates?

A public apology would go a long way. Here is but one example why:

The New York Times’ account of Coleman’s victory Saturday was headlined, “Christian Coleman Wins Track Gold Amid Doping Test Controversy,” and began this way: “Christian Coleman has earned the right to be called the fastest man in the world, but some question whether he even should have been in the running.”

So unfair.


Moreover, this episode has sparked at these championships a classic example of hot-take nonsense.

Michael Johnson, the 1990s-era American 200 and 400 champion who now offers opinions for the BBC, said of Coleman, “It completely disqualifies him, at this point, from ever being that face of the sport. This will follow him, as it should. 

“I think this is an incredibly important issue around the sport because Christian Coleman was being touted to replace Usain bolt as the big star of the sport.

“I don’t think that will happen now as a result of this. I think that fans of athletics don’t have any tolerance at this point for any sort of doping infraction.”

This last sentence completely ignores not only common sense — hello, packed crowds at the 2017 London championships where obviously athletes with doping records were part of the scene— but the historical record, and even in Great Britain. 

At the Beijing 2008 Summer Games, Christine Ohuruogu became the first British female Olympic 400-meter champion; the summer before, as the BBC dutifully reported in its story on her victory, she had completed a one-year ban for missing — hello — three out-of-competition drug tests.

Trying to have it all ways, Johnson went on to say that USADA made a “huge mistake” by bringing the case in the first instance but “if you are going to position yourself as the face of the sport and the superstar of the sport, you have a responsibility to always update your whereabouts and not make the mistake that he did in not updating that those three times and then handling it the way that he did after it came to the public view.”

On Twitter, Johnson sought to either elaborate or walk back his comments — you choose. 

IAAF president Seb Coe was crystal clear about where he stood. In remarks before the competition got underway, he said: “I am pleased Coleman is here and I want to make sure he is given every opportunity to be one of the faces of these championships.”

Reflecting Sunday, Coleman said, “It is disheartening. I have said that many times. It is disheartening. It is mentally straining to have people saying these ridiculous things about me. My parents see it. My grandparents read things online.

“I can take it. But it hurts them. When that hurts them, it bothers me. 

“I have done everything I can do to explain the situation. Someone who took an oath to be part of this official thing — to leak something and then take it out of context and then blow it up — once it’s out there, you can’t get it back. It is really hurtful. It’s a lose-lose situation. If I don’t say anything, people will say, why aren’t you explaining? If I am explaining, people feel I didn’t explain well enough or didn’t come off in the way they want me to.

“The overall perception is I did something wrong and they feel the athlete can never be right. They look at USADA and they feel he” — meaning himself — “must have done something wrong. They must have never brought the case [against] me.

“They,” meaning USADA, “were wrong.”

Proud mother, happy son

Proud mother, happy son

Seth Coleman, who for years has also covered high school sports as a working freelance journalist, said of the media coverage of the affair, “I knew they were going to go negative. It’s the world of journalism. 

“I knew,” he continued, “that the facts were on his side. I knew eventually, as we went through the adjudication process that it would all come out. But in the meantime, I was disappointed still, and disheartened. I know how hard he works. I know how hard he has worked. I know his ethics and I know he wouldn’t do anything illegal or untoward for himself or the sport. 

“He loves the sport and he wants to represent the sport in a clean light, wants the sport to be more popular, knows it can’t be what it should be without clean athletes. He knows the [doping-related] shadow. He wants to be that guy, wants to be that amazing guy who shows you what you can be if you work clean. I was disheartened because I knew all this would cloud that.”

Christian Coleman has two sisters, one older, a 25-year-old real estate agent, who ran track at Georgia Southern, and one younger, 17, who is the starting libero on her high school volleyball team. 

“Christian is a good kid,” Daphne Coleman said. “Even in high school, he made curfew. If we told him to be home by 12:30 [a.m.], he was home by 12:30. He did everything we asked him to.”

Her son said, “The fact that people are talking about this and the media is painting me in this light and people are being so negative and not thinking logically — I don’t know. Logically, it doesn’t make sense to me, that Americans have to be doing something wrong. I am fighting a lot of narratives.

“If I can continue to win in the future, and the further we get away from this year, and I can still continue to win, people will come around. Going into the Olympics, there’s going to be a lot more media coverage and a lot more opportunities to see my private life and I am happy to share. 

“People will see,” he said, “the media does not always have the story right.”