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Innocence Isn’t All That’s Lost

When sprinter Justin Gatlin finished third in the 200 meters to complete a U.S. medal sweep at the Athens Olympics, he didn’t preen, as others had before him.

He drew his compatriots to his side and prayed.

When the credibility of track and field was shredded by positive drug tests belonging to C.J. Hunter, Jerome Young and Calvin and Alvin Harrison, when documentary evidence led the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency to ban Tim Montgomery and Chryste Gaines, when Kelli White admitted she’d used performance-enhancing substances, Justin Gatlin stood up and said no.

It’s not necessary to use drugs to succeed. It’s possible to compete clean and win, said Gatlin, whose path to becoming the Athens 100-meter champion and co-world record holder began when he leapfrogged fire hydrants as a child in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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He was a persuasive example, charming and charismatic, diamond earring twinkling from his right ear, his smile and courtly manners adding weight to his claims.

If anyone could save the sport from its doping debauchery it would be Gatlin and the other American youngsters who emerged so impressively just before the 2004 Olympics, a group that includes Allyson Felix, Lauryn Williams, Shawn Crawford, Tyson Gay and Jeremy Wariner.

Instead of saving track and field, Gatlin may have perpetuated the evil that crippled it.

Gatlin said Saturday that he had tested positive for “testosterone or its precursors” at the Kansas Relays in Lawrence, Kan., on April 22. While the test was being processed and the results affirmed, he ran the 100 in 9.766 seconds at Doha, Qatar, on May 12, briefly holding the world record until the International Assn. of Athletics Federations rounded his time up to 9.77. That matched the record Jamaica’s Asafa Powell had set in 2005.

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Gatlin also defended his U.S. 100-meter title in June, telling the Indianapolis Star that he’s “always walking on eggshells” and had become “pretty paranoid about what I take, what I eat, who handles my food,” to minimize the opportunity for anyone to taint what he ingests.

What a tragedy for every kid who watched Gatlin’s powerful stride and tried to copy it, what a sick joke for everyone who began to believe in the sport again, if Gatlin brought this upon himself.

And that’s how it looks, because his “B” sample, taken at the same time as the first and preserved for backup testing, confirmed the initial finding.

Gatlin said he couldn’t account for the result and hadn’t “knowingly” taken a banned substance or authorized anyone to give him such a substance. He said he’d learned his lesson in 2001 when he was competing for the University of Tennessee and tested positive for an amphetamine contained in medication prescribed for attention deficit disorder. His two-year suspension was reduced to a single year, with the warning that a second violation would bring about a lifetime ban.

That’s the punishment he faces now. And his sport faces with him.

Since 2001, he said, “I have been involved with efforts to educate people about the dangers of using drugs and would never do anything to disappoint my fans and supporters. It is simply not consistent with either my character or my confidence in my God-given athletic ability to cheat in any way.”

Tour de France winner Floyd Landis, the small-town kid who overcame cultural and physical obstacles to become an elite cyclist and seemed the ideal person to revive his sport’s drug-dirtied image, said almost the same things a few days ago. A drug test found that his testosterone level was grossly out of proportion to his epitestosterone level after Stage 17 of the grueling race, and he couldn’t explain why. He was innocent, he said.

Next up on the doping docket: Santa Claus tests positive for steroids.

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Think about it. How is he able to visit all those houses all over the world, unless he’s juiced?

Yes, everyone is innocent until proven guilty, but the parade of doping violations in the past decade has almost turned that around. There are sprinters and distance runners, hammer throwers and shotputters who win because they have talent and work hard, but every victory they earn and every personal best they achieve is greeted with raised eyebrows and suspicions that a pill or a cream or a discreet injection of a scientist’s invention propelled them to those heights.

Until now, Gatlin’s greatest sin had been aligning himself with Trevor Graham, the coach who worked with Montgomery and an array of other athletes sanctioned for doping. Graham also coached Marion Jones, who remains under investigation by USADA for possible drug use. If Gatlin had been guilty of anything, it was poor judgment in hanging out with the wrong people.

It now appears he’s guilty of far worse than that. He’s guilty of cheating everyone who believed he was competing honestly and fairly, of being a liar and a hypocrite.

He talked the talk, but took a crooked walk.


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