Is the media to blame for villainising Justin Gatlin?

ALIA AL-DOORI  •   AUGUST 25, 2017 


Sporting events, and in particular athletics tournaments, have a habit of taking on grand narratives. In most traditional stories, you will find two presences, distinctly opposed to one another: the hero and the villain.

As is the case with the world of competitive sprints. Among the oldest of running competitions, recent interest in top level, short-distance racing has been ignited by a defined, consistently celebrated hero, with a distinctive name and brand recognition to boot. Usain Bolt has been the poster-boy for athletics for years now, understood to be a squeaky clean yet entertaining, consummate sportsman.

However, as previously expressed, for every hero it is human nature to look for a villain, particularly in the sports world. Enter Justin Gatlin. A now 35-year-old American runner, he has been presented as the ‘anti-Bolt’, a two-time drug cheat whose doping has ‘sullied’ the position of top-level athletics and continues to represent a question mark over the sport’s core fairness.

This clash between Bolt and Gatlin has been a continuous presence on the track over the past decade, with multiple twists and turns, most of which landing in Bolt’s favour. However, there was a final chance for Gatlin to pip Bolt to the post in the 100 meters event in the IAAF World Championships, or as a number of UK newspapers termed it, “gate-crash” Bolt’s final race. He succeeded.

Of course, if we look at this from Gatlin’s perspective, this was no grand opportunity in which to ruin Bolt’s final outing. This was a race, plain and simple. As a competitive athlete, he had one job that day: to run faster than the other guys. Bolt wasn’t the only competitor he was up against either. There were six other athletes he had to contend with, one of whom, Christian Coleman, beat Bolt as well.

Yet the media has a clear and consistent narrative to maintain, one which, to create a fitting ending, Bolt should have emerged victorious from. The fact that he hasn’t is an example of life not fitting an established story as much as we would like, with both audience and media reaction being one of fervent enragement. The crowds booed, the media once again took to prefacing Gatlin as a “doper” and a “cheat” and the athletics establishment berated his win, with Lord Sebastian Coe admitting the day hadn’t followed “the perfect script”.

So now, in the wake of a controversy, earned or not, we must reflect. Gatlin has clearly been heavily scrutinised by the media. If he hadn’t been, the general populace simply wouldn’t be aware of him on such a scale. If a survey were to have been done a week before the Championships began, I can guarantee that Christian Coleman, Yohan Blake and Akani Simbine would not only have produced a less tempestuous reaction than Gatlin, but would have simply been far less recognised. But is the media’s coverage fair?

Mainstream newspapers and online outlets have consistently pointed out that Gatlin is a “two-time” cheat. While this may be factually accurate, it does seem rather misrepresentative. Yes, he has been banned on two separate occasions for the taking of banned substances. However, the media often fail to note that on the first occasion Gatlin was discovered to be taking Adderall, a drug he had been taking since childhood to combat his medically diagnosed attention deficit disorder (ADD). Upon consideration of this justification the athletics board reported that “the panel specifically notes that in this case Mr Gatlin neither cheated nor did he intend to cheat”.

His second offence is less excusable. While he has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing, Gatlin was found to have performance-enhancing testosterone additives in his system. This time all evidence points to the suggestion that he was a “drug-cheat”.

However, the United States anti-doping agency set in place their ban and Gatlin followed it. He served his four-year ban and, as per the agency’s decision, is now allowed to race again. Many argue that he should have been given a lifetime ban, but the decision of the agency is a discussion for another day. Allowing for the situation as it stands, it surely cannot be reasonable that the athletics world and its spectators continue to shun one of the most successful competitors on the basis of a ‘crime’ for which he has been formally forgiven. On the whole people tend to enjoy a good redemption arc. Yet people seem unable to accept Gatlin as a redeemed athlete. It can be difficult to shake off a bad reputation, particularly without positive media representation, but as Gatlin proves, it’s vital. For one reason or another he has failed to make this work.

One possible reason for this is that Gatlin is just too quick. If he were coming fourth or fifth perhaps the crowds could forgive him, or at least overlook his placement in races. Gatlin’s coach suggested this was the case, pointing to multiple cases of former dopers, allowed again to compete, yet not getting hounded because “they’re not winning”. If Bolt was today found to have been guilty of doping in a single historic race, his entire record of astounding wins would be not only disputed, but likely be disregarded.

Here we come to the greatest determining factor of the population’s reaction to Gatlin. Athletics tournaments are spectator sports, and those spectators pay to watch what they deem to be legitimate. They don’t want to feel duped, and are happy to ignore the determining regulations put in place by the governing boards, or their proclamation that Gatlin was, in this race, completely innocent, if they think they have been deceived. At a time in which reporters on such events look specifically to play to the emotions of their audience, the general public, it would appear that they have determined a potentially reactive story, driven forward that reaction, and now report on exactly that what they have created.

Perhaps we as a viewing public, and the athletes who compete, need to accept the realisation that in this age of fast runners but even faster news, as with almost everything from the newspapers to politicians, the general population has become more interested in athletics telling a good story than an accurate one. As long as the story says that one competitor is guilty, evidence to the contrary, such as Gatlin’s more recent successful drugs tests, only gets in the way of the narrative. In this modern world, maybe it doesn’t matter whether Gatlin is or was a drugs-cheat. Maybe it wouldn’t matter if Bolt was one. Maybe all that matters is public representation and the way in which the athletes are perceived. Perhaps all that matters in the end is that theirs makes for a good story and that the ‘hero’ is the first to cross the finish line.

Benjamin Thomas