Can Athletes Ever Really Come Back from Doping Bans?

The return of sprinters like Justin Gatlin, LaShawn Merritt, and Tyson Gay to the Olympics raises the question, once more, of whether an athlete who has been caught doping can ever be truly clean again.
August 2, 2016, 7:05pm
Photo by Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

This week as part of VICE Sports' Olympic preview, we are taking a look at the sports War on Doping.

After Justin Gatlin won the men's 100-meter dash at the U.S. Olympic trials last month, thereby securing his return to the Games in 2016, many in the sold-out stands of Hayward Field, in Eugene, Oregon, leaped to their feet. Their applause turned into a roar as the former Olympic champion strolled around the track with a flag in his hand and his adorable son at his side. A few days later, Gatlin earned another spot on Team USA in the 200-meter event, solidifying his place as one of the fastest men in America, and the world.


In a sport where men typically peak in their early or mid-twenties the fact that the 34-year-old Gatlin, who won a gold medal in the 100 meters at the 2004 Athens Games and a bronze in 2012 in London, is logging record times is an astonishing feat. But it comes with an asterisk, because the sprinter has also served two separate suspensions for doping: Gatlin incurred a two-year ban in 2001 (later reduced to one year after appeal) and a four-year ban in 2006.

Read More: The Case for Ending the Sports War on Doping

So it wasn't surprising that amid the sea of applause that followed his two big finishes in Eugene, brows were raised in the stands at Hayward Field and angry tweets flickered online.

"Remember when Gatlin got suspended for doping and then came back to run faster as a 34 year old. Yeah he's totally clean right now #TeamUSA," one read. "The whole crowd loudly cheered Gatlin," said another. "That's why doping will never be stopped. People don't care enough. #TrackTown16."

Reporters in the press tent buzzed about Gatlin's performance, but few people in Eugene were eager to kill the feel-good vibe of building an Olympic team. That was part of why the sight of a handful of fans in the stands that wore shirts that bore the words "Runners Against Doping" felt bold.

Gatlin's return to the Olympics raises the question, yet again, of whether an athlete who has been caught doping can ever truly repent for his or her transgression and compete cleanly once more.


Athletes, fans, sponsors, and scientists remain divided on the issue, some saying those who are caught should be banned for life. Period. Others argue that sprinters like Gatlin deserve a chance to come back if they serve their time.

"What the hell is wrong with the culture of track and field?" Olympic 800 meters runner Alysia Montaño told journalist Philip Hersh in March. "We don't celebrate old dopers. Once a doper, always a doper. There's no such thing as an old doper."

Merritt and Gatlin have each served suspensions for doping. Photo by Glenn Andrews-USA TODAY Sports

Sprinting rewards explosive power, and in an event where fortunes are determined by hundredths or thousandths of a second, athletes will seek out every competitive advantage. As a result, the sport has been a thicket of doping sanctions and accusations for generations. Russia may be an extreme (and allegedly state-sponsored) example, but it certainly wasn't unique in giving multiple implicated athletes a ticket to Rio.

Take the United States. Alongside Gatlin in the starting blocks at the U.S. trials was Tyson Gay, who tested positive for a banned substance in July 2013 and was stripped of his silver medal from the 2012 Summer Olympics. He will be part of the U.S. 100-meter relay team in Rio. LaShawn Merritt, who received a two-year suspension in 2010 after failing a drug test (later reduced to 21 months), will compete at Rio in the men's 200 meters and 400 meters.

Fans and fellow journalists weren't exactly eager to bring up the elephant on the track at the Olympic trials last month. Most of the athletes at Hayward were also reluctant to discuss the doping sanctions of their peers, shrugging them off as time served and lessons learned, or making claims that they had renewed their commitment to competing cleanly.


Yet there are looming concerns that doping may continue to give athletes an edge long after they finish serving suspensions, even if they no longer actively use a banned substance. The advantages afforded by anabolic steroids could last for decades, according to a study for the University of Oslo, further fueling criticism of what some have deemed curious "geriatric sprinting" on the part of Gatlin.

Some athletes, however, aren't willing to write off athletes who test positive forever—especially not given the current anti-doping regimes. Adam Nelson, a shot put thrower and president of the Track & Field Athletes Association, echoed Carl Sagan's notion that "extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof" and said that he was wary of considering the issue on anything other than a case-by-case basis.

"As an athletes' rights advocate, I have to fight for athletes to participate if they abide by the rules," he said.

Adam Nelson was awarded the 2004 gold medal for shot put at the Olympic trials last month. Photo by James Lang-USA TODAY Sports.

Nelson is uniquely poised to weigh in, as he found out that his silver medal from the 2004 Games would be exchanged for a gold after retroactive drug testing found traces of steroids in the urine sample of the winner, Yuriy Bilonog of Ukraine. He competed at the trials last month but did not make the cut for the Rio Olympics.

To Nelson, a fairer system would give athletes a role in determining appropriate sanctions for PED use rather than just leaders with the World Anti-Doping Agency, the international group that oversees drug testing standards for Olympic sports.


"WADA looks at all athletes as the enemy," Nelson said. "You're guilty until they prove you innocent. That's the wrong model. We're partners in this fight and we should be seen as equals in this fight. Athletes aren't perfect, but guess what? WADA's testing isn't perfect, either. If their testing was perfect, there would be no need for this."

Back in Oregon, as the drug testers shuttled around Hayward Field during the track trials, announcers made no mention of individual sanctions, and fans cheered on the athletes exuberantly. Many sprinters said they felt that, although the doping busts tarnished the overall image of the sport, they might be a sign that drug testers were taking their job seriously.

"I tip my hat to WADA and USADA for cracking down in an Olympic year to make sure it's a clean competition," sprinter B.J. Lee said. "It's important to make sure the sport stays clean so it can get the respect that it deserves. When you're out there on the line, you don't think about it. You just hope your buddies out there are competing cleanly."

He pointed to the fan hunger for the spectacle of speed, the love of seeing records broken and the human body's edge pushed. But if fans also expect a cleaner sport, those expectations may have to be muted.

"People just see the final product and that's we're supposed to produce," Lee said. "It's like a movie. You don't see what goes on behind the scenes, and that's what our lives are."

A similar scene will play out at the Olympic track in Rio in coming days, where Gatlin, Gay, and the rest of the world's best sprinters will take to their stage before tens of thousands in the stands and millions more on television. In spite of their tarnished records, they still have sponsors and fans—and it is largely those groups that will determine how meaningful the product they produce at the Games will be.

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