Athletics: Gatlin pleads positive test was 'a set-up'

Justin Gatlin's coach, Trevor Graham, put forward an extraordinary defence of his athlete yesterday following his positive doping test. Graham claimed the Olympic and world 100 metres champion had been "set up", and added that his team was "100 per cent sure" of the individual concerned and added that they could prove their case. "Someone has sabotaged my athlete," he said. "We know who, but Justin did not take any banned substances."

The world of athletics was struggling to come to terms with the news that Gatlin is now facing a life ban after a sample taken from him after a relay race in Kansas City on 22 April tested positive for "testosterone or its precursors". Asafa Powell, whose world record of 9.77sec Gatlin equalled in May, was reported by his agent Paul Doyle to be "surprised and upset".

Doyle phoned the Jamaican shortly after he had landed back home, having won Friday's 100m at Crystal Palace. "Asafa had a lot of questions - 'What happened? How did this come about? How did I hear about it?'" Doyle said. "He wanted to know all that. The first thing he wanted to know was, was it true?"

The truth was revealed on Saturday as Gatlin, who has taken a high-profile stance against doping abuse since an early skirmish with the rules five years ago, said he had been informed by the US Anti-Doping Agency of a positive finding.

The precursors involved are likely to be some form of steroids and in this case - unlike that of Gatlin's fellow American Floyd Landis, the Tour de France winner who has also tested positive for testosterone - both A and B samples are positive.

At 19, Gatlin received a two-year ban for doping when amphetamines were discovered in a sample, and although he was pardoned within two months because the result was due to medication he was taking to combat attention deficit disorder, the punishment still stood. Under the rules of the International Association of Athletics Federations, any second offence means a life ban.

Gatlin, who has not competed since retaining his US title last month because of a reported knee injury, has said he will cooperate with USADA at a forthcoming hearing. "I hope that when all the facts are revealed it will be determined that I have done nothing wrong," he said. "I cannot account for these results, because I have never knowingly used any banned substance or authorised anyone else to administer such a substance to me."

Gatlin heard of his adverse test last month, after he had equalled Powell's world record at a meeting in Doha on 12 May - a time that was announced as 9.76sec but then rounded up to 9.77sec. Given that the American's Doha run came after a positive test, the sport now appears certain to have to expunge its third world 100m record in the space of 18 years because of doping.

In 1988 Ben Johnson's mark of 9.79sec in the Olympic final was annulled after he had tested positive following the race in Seoul. Last year Tim Montgomery had his 2002 time of 9.78sec ruled out after he was found part of the conspiracy involving a doping ring at the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative in San Francisco.

Gatlin's sample was subjected to a carbon isotope ratio test which can determine whether testosterone has been produced naturally or artificially. He can present the findings to an independent review board after which he has the right to appeal.

The strength of Graham's defence of his athlete is diminished by the fact that his own reputation has been adversely affected by recent doping allegations. Graham admitted alerting the federal authorities to the Balco scandal by sending them a syringe of the then untested-for steroid THG (tetrahydrogestrinone), which was being supplied by the lab. His action prompted an investigation which resulted in numerous athletes, including his former charge Montgomery, with whom he was said to be in dispute over payment, and Britain's Dwain Chambers, receiving doping bans.

The coach has recently become the focus of another investigation following allegations from a former associate that he had instructed him to supply Marion Jones, whom Graham coached from 1996 to 2000, with steroids from Mexico. Jones, who has revived her career this season at the age of 30, has denied a series of different allegations linking her to doping abuse.

The associate, Angel Guillermo Heredia, did not mention Gatlin in his testimony, which related only to the period leading up to the 2000 Sydney Olympics, where Jones won five medals. But he maintained that Graham strongly encouraged his athletes to take performance-enhancing drugs.

Graham insisted that Gatlin had always been cautious not to risk taking any contaminated supplements, which were scientifically proven to be capable of creating some of the rash of positive tests for the banned steroid nandrolone in 1998 and 1999.

"He's got his own nutritional supplements that he goes out and buys," Graham said. "He will not trust anyone, not his parents, his coach, not anyone."

After his initial ban, Gatlin said he was "particularly sensitive" to the issue of doping. "That experience made me even more vigilant to make certain that I not come into contact with any banned substance for any reason whatsoever."

Craig Masback, the executive director of USA Track and Field, commented: "We hope Justin has not committed a doping offence and we await the completion of the adjudication process."

The IAAF president, Lamine Diack, said: "Although it is a matter of deep regret that one of the biggest stars of our sport is facing serious doping charges, I would take this opportunity to emphasise the IAAF's total commitment to the fight against doping."

So the much-anticipated meeting between the joint world-record holders, postponed by Gatlin's withdrawal from the Gateshead meeting on 11 June and subsequently frustrated by his withdrawal citing injury looks likely never to happen at all.

Given the history in this event, it is sadly inevitable that questions will now be raised about the legitimacy of Powell's performances, although his agent is prepared to guarantee his integrity. "I sure can," said Doyle. 'Absolutely. Asafa Powell is a clean athlete. He does not take drugs."