Before Nike bestows top dollar on Gatlin, it should get to the bottom about his past

Many in the world of sport still do not believe the explanation given by the American former Olympic champion's coach

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The Independent Online

It is easy to mock Justin Gatlin but can you say, hand on heart, that no one has ever rubbed drugs into your bare arse without your knowledge?

No. What happened to that poor man could happen to anyone.

Picture the scene. After a long day out on the track, you rest your weary frame upon the treatment table, press play on Now That’s What I Call Whale Song 58 and do you honestly bother to check that a rogue masseur hasn’t put down the jar marked “Patchouli Oil” and picked up the one marked “Steroids”?

It was track & field’s Judas Kiss. The victim supine. The traitor primed. Fleshy palm rolls over granite buttock, kneading in injustice and shame that will last a lifetime.

Many in the world of sport still do not believe the explanation given by the American former Olympic champion’s coach Trevor Graham in 2007 of how his world-conquering sprinter came to be the eighth athlete in his care to test positive for banned substances.

We, of course, wouldn’t dare to comment, though we do note the succinct words of said masseur, Christopher Whetstine: “The story about me is not true.”

In any case, the man who shocked the world to win the 100m gold in Athens 11 years ago was forced to serve a four-year ban from 2006 to 2010. Now he is back in business, but the toxic legacy of his backside remains.

In the long glorious summer of London 2012 only two people were booed by the Stratford crowd. One was George Osborne (who, for the avoidance of doubt, has to the best of our knowledge never had any illegal substances clandestinely smeared upon derrière), the other Gatlin.

Inconveniently, the now 33-year-old dominated the sprinting world last year and is fancied in some corners to win 100m and 200m gold at August’s World Championships; and such success has attracted the attention of Nike, with whom he has now signed a sponsorship deal.

It is easy to criticise them, and pretty much everyone has, from Jason Gardener to Paula Radcliffe, but to do so is to fundamentally misunderstand the modern world.

Whenever anything dastardly happens in sport, be it drugs, corruption, match-fixing, or the World Cup being prostituted out to misogynist sheikhs by its pimps at Fifa, the siren call always sounds that the sponsors must do something about it. That they are the only ones who hold sway.

But to seek to impose a moral conscience on giant corporations, who are legally obligated not to have one, is a project based on ignorance and guaranteed to fail.

It was once the winged goddess Nike’s job to fly around the battlefield bestowing honour – in the form of a laurel wreath – to whichever warrior was playing a blinder that particular day. Her modern American trainer-touting incarnation does the same, flitting about the sporting firmament, sprinkling stardust upon whomever it deems worthy.

This matters more in some sports than others. The likes of Messi and McIlroy don’t need the millions thrown at them by the corporations – not that they turn it down. In minor Olympic sports, getting a big backer on board can mean everything. Athletics lives in the middle ground. The prize money is OK, but the apparel-makers are the kingmakers.

The modern deviates from the ancient in that the original Nike never had to concern herself with maximising shareholder value. Today’s Nike must not be bothered by honour, but merely with how far its giant tick can be propelled up the tickerboards of the world’s stock exchanges. Glory is measured in basis points.

If, via the Olympics, Coke and McDonald’s can co-opt the world’s leading amateur sportspeople as a vehicle through which to shift their heart-attack-inducing wares without even paying them – and they can – Nike backing a cheat is nothing.

It is extremely unfortunate for a sport that, still reeling from a massive Russian doping scandal in which many other nations and star names are implicated, knows it is teetering close to the point where trust in the integrity of the competition is gone. When that happens, all is lost.

There are the old Ched Evans-style arguments to reel out. That Gatlin has done his crime, done his time, now let him get on with it. But not many people get booed at the Olympics.

When Gatlin wins, sport loses, and it’s just possible Nike should be careful what it wishes for. It is making an arse of itself.