x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

For athletes like Justin Gatlin, there is life after doping and it is not so bad

With the door open for comebacks after cheating, it sends a wrong message to athletes about punishments and cutting corners.

American sprinter Justin Gatlin celebrates after beating Jamaica’s Usain Bolt and winning the men’s 100m event at the Golden Gala IAAF track meet in Rome on Thursday. Andrew Medichini / AP Photo
American sprinter Justin Gatlin celebrates after beating Jamaica’s Usain Bolt and winning the men’s 100m event at the Golden Gala IAAF track meet in Rome on Thursday. Andrew Medichini / AP Photo

Music fans never did get a conclusive answer to one of the most vexing questions of our times: exactly who did let the dogs out? At the risk of offending our canine friends by association, sports fans are often these days left wondering: who let the drug cheats in?

The answer is more straightforward. Sporting associations, across the globe, have shown themselves pitifully inadequate at making examples of athletes convicted of using performance-enhancing drugs.

Last Thursday, the former Olympic gold medallist Justin Gatlin beat Usain Bolt by one-hundredth of a second to win the 100-metre race at the Golden Gala meeting in Rome. But should he even have been on the same track as the world's fastest man?

Gatlin was banned for four years after a positive drug test in 2006, only two years after his win at the Athens Games. He returned in 2010, and unlike the most celebrated drug cheat of all, Ben Johnson, he managed to get back to his best. Now he is Bolt's main rival at this summer's IAAF World Championship in Moscow.

Gatlin is one of the lucky ones. Some track athletes, such as Marion Jones and former 100m world record holder Tim Montgomery, had their careers curtailed by doping scandals.

Some will argue that, having served his sentence mid-career, Gatlin deserves a second chance. That is an oversimplification of the situation.

First, the ease at which certain offenders are allowed back into competition sends out the wrong message to the rest of the field. That is, you can succeed by cutting corners.

To those already doping their way to success, it is vindication that getting caught need not be the end of the world, either. Yes, it is a massive risk, but evidently one worth taking, considering the potential pay-off.

The threat of punishment often does not work as a preventive measure.

What is often overlooked is that the participation of Gatlin and other offenders, before and after their suspensions, comes at the expense of many "clean" athletes whose performance ceiling is, naturally, lower.

Crucially, while there is no indication that Gatlin himself is anything but clean now, drug cheats often are repeat offenders.

It is not just athletics that has suffered. Baseball, for one, is in danger of being overwhelmed by doping scandals.

In what ESPN called potentially the most serious doping scandal in US sports history, Major League Baseball last week announced it is set to suspend up to 20 players in the coming weeks for involvement in a doping scandal involving an anti-ageing clinic in Miami.

The new case is hardly shocking considering baseball's recent history.

Some of its greatest figures over the past two decades have been tainted by links to drugs.

In 1998, Mark McGwire of St Louis Cardinals and Sammy Sosa of Chicago Cubs were involved in a memorable race to break Roger Maris's long-standing record of 61 home runs in a season. To huge media attention that went beyond baseball's traditional audience, McGwire got there first. Both became heroes across the US, but after retirement, McGwire openly admitted to doping for years; and in 2009 the New York Times revealed Sosa was one of several players who had tested positive as early as 2003.

Barry Bonds, who holds the single-season record for home runs with 73, was indicted in 2007 for lying to a grand jury in the Balco doping investigation, and in 2011 he was found guilty of obstruction of justice.

Then there is Alex Rodriguez of New York Yankees. In 2009, having been "outed" by former player Jose Canseco, he admitted to using steroids between 2001 and 2003 while with Texas Rangers, a period which helped turn him into baseball's golden boy. However, he never served a suspension and now is paid an astonishing US$27 million (Dh99m) per year by the Yankees.

Now, "A-Rod" finds himself at the centre of the latest scandal, which raises the question of exactly how many strikes, to use a baseball metaphor, drug offenders should be allowed.

For the sake of baseball's credibility, the answer should surely be, one strike and you're out.

For some sports, the consequences of relentless doping scandals could be far more devastating than for others. To what degree will cycling, for example, recover from the Lance Armstrong scandal?

Casual fans, for whom Armstrong's celebrity status was the sport's main attraction, will be put off. When another leading figure, Alexander Vinokourov of Kazakhstan, wins gold in the Road Race at the London Olympics, having been banned for just one year in 2007, you can hardly blame even the most hardcore of cycling enthusiasts from losing faith in the sport.

Dopers, and their suppliers, are always said to be one step ahead of the testers, which makes the laxness in punishing them when caught even more incomprehensible.

For now, cheats must believe that crime still pays. How long will this be allowed to go on?

akhaled@thenational.ae

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