Anti-doping cynics need to take a chill pill

Ex-doper Justin Gatlin deserves our praise for his brilliant comeback.

Sprinter and ex-doper Justin Gatlin is now the eighth-fastest human ever. Last Friday he ran 200 metres in 19.68 seconds – that’s over 35 kilometres per hour. Sadly, commentators have been as quick off the blocks with their cynicism. Athletics fans have concluded Gatlin must be doping again, and some have gone further still and claimed his success should be written off whether he’s clean or not – he’s a doper, runs the thinking, and bad people should never succeed. These claims are hyper-emotional and devoid of common sense.

Upon seeing Gatlin’s sensational time, Gabby Logan leapt straight into detective mode: ‘With his past in mind and – this is not a cynical question – aged 32, what is he doing to run these sort of times?’

When pundits head down this path, they do athletics, and sport in general, a disservice. If every suspicion about athletes doping had been confirmed with hard evidence, then perhaps pundits’ cynicism would be more understandable. But this is not the case. In fact, the sensational achievements of athletes over the years – even those post drug-bans – almost always come down to talent and sheer hard work. A default to ‘he must be doping’ scepticism as soon as someone runs a shock time is unwarranted.

Remember Caster Semenya? She was the 800-metres world champion in 2008 but because of her masculine appearance, very public rumours about her being intersex circulated prompting an investigation in 2009. It took nearly a year for the International Association of Athletics Federations to state that Semenya was free to compete. But by then it was too late. Her achievements had already been devalued with each blistering time put down to her being a man in disguise. Or remember Ye Shiwen? She was 16 when she won an Olympic gold in the pool at London 2012. She immediately became the subject of doping rumors and her achievements were dismissed. Yet, with no evidence of any cheating ever discovered, she turned out just to be a fantastic swimmer.

Of course, some athletes do dope. But the militant cynicism towards athletes is not justified by the non-doping reality. Indeed, the cynicism directed at Gatlin is nonsensical – why bother watching athletics at all if the moment someone does something noteworthy we brand them a cheat?

Another side to the Gatlin debacle makes even less sense. Certain people have decided that we should resent his success whether he’s doped again or not. Apparently, his record of doping shows he doesn’t respect the sport therefore we should file him under ‘baddie’ and regret each success he has. When he raced well earlier this season, Steve Cram commented that he’d rather someone else was succeeding.

I understand where emotion like this comes from – we all tend to impose a narrative on sport and understand athletes in terms of their characters. Still, there is a shortage of common sense underpinning the sentiments of Cram and Co. Justin Gatlin making a failed comeback might have been more poetic – in that he ‘deserved’ to fail – but then we’d have missed out on his recent exhilarating performances. Preferring a fairytale narrative in which bad guys come last, at the cost of a fall in sporting standards, is unhinged sentimentalism. Achievement in sport is what matters. Athletics is great to watch because we can see the human body pushed further than ever before; it is about as pure as challenges can be. So whenever sport merits a new chapter, in which we see athletes pushing themselves to the limit, we should celebrate the achievement, not denigrate the performer.

Commentators need to back off with their unthinking cynicism. Refusing to enjoy an achievement based on the athlete’s personal record is massively over-sentimental. The Commonwealth Games have just begun: this time around, when a kid breaks a record, when a woman qualifies in a time not far off the men’s times, let’s just enjoy humanity at its slickest.

Alex Dean is an intern at spiked.

Duleep Allirajah, spiked’s regular sports columnist, is away.

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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