19 October, 2014

Never say never: the Gatlin affair

I had promised myself, when I wrote the entry on Gatlin, that never again was I going to write on doping-related matters. However at times you cannot help it.

On October 3rd the IAAF posted the list of the candidates for the World Athlete of the Year Award. The men’s list in alphabetical order, as of today in the IAAF website, is the following

Nigel Amos (BOT)
Mutaz Essa Barshim (QAT)
Jairus Kipchoge Birech (KEN)
Bogdan Bondarenko (UKR)
Yohann Diniz (FRA)
Justin Gatlin (USA)
Dennis Kipruto Kimetto (KEN)
Renaud Lavillenie (FRA)
LaShawn Merritt (USA)

with the footnote

Robert Harting (GER) was nominated by the expert panel for the shortlist but has requested to be removed from the vote.

What did happen? The day after his nomination, Harting, Olympic, World and European champion in discus throwing, announced that he did not want to be associated with the sprinter, banned twice in his career for taking performance-enhancing drugs.

"I ask the IAAF to remove me from the list. I find the nomination great. Yet I stand for nomination with a former doping offender, and that is the reason for my waiver."

Harting was not the only one to feel uncomfortable about Gatlin’s nomination. Two days after Harting’s announcement S. Coe, IAAF vice-president, said that he also had 'big problems' with the nomination. 

In his own words:

“The only thing I would say is that he is entitled to be competing. I'm not particularly comfortable about it. I think you'd be pretty surprised if I did sit here and was sanguine about that.

I personally have big problems with that. I have long since believed that, particularly anabolic steroids, performance-enhancing, muscle-developing drugs, have a long-term effect.

… I think anybody in the last 20 years that I've known in that world, particularly in sports physiology and biochemistry would tell you that's certainly the case. The effect is certainly not transient and we've seen that in the performance of athletes for some time.”

Scientists do agree with this. According to professor of physiology at the University of Oslo, K. Gunderson:

“It is likely that effects could be lifelong or at least lasting decades in humans. Our data indicates the exclusion time of two years is far too short. Even four years is too short.”

As I wrote in my previous blog post, Gatlin had profited from an unheard-of clemency whereupon his second doping offence did not entail a life ban but just an eight-year one, subsequently reduced to four years.

Harting was not the only champion to take offence at Gatlin’s nomination. 

British 400 metres hurdles world and european champion Dai Greene also remarked: “Gatlin is over the hill as far as sprinting is concerned - he should never be running these times for the 100 m and 200 m. But he's still doing it, and you have to look at his past, and ask how it is still affecting him now, because the average person wouldn't be able to do that.

Referring to Gatlin’s 9.77 s and and 19.71 s run in the same competition on 05/09/14 in Brussels he added:
“Those are incredible performances. Not many people have run that fast separately, ever. To do it on a damp Friday night? I couldn't believe those times. It shows one of two things: either he's still taking performance-enhancing drugs to get the best out of him at his advanced age, or the ones he did take are still doing a fantastic job.”

Of course one can wonder how Sir Sebastian, being the most influential person in the IAAF (the fact that he will be succeeding the current president at the head of IAAF is nobody’s secret) did not react earlier at Gatlin’s nomination. Be it as it may the matter is now settled: Gatlin does not have a chance at receiving the Athlete of the Year award. The three finalists were nominated on October 17th and they are: Barshim, Kimetto and Lavillenie.

All is well the ends well? Maybe. But Gatlin is, alas, still running. 

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