Mike Rowbottom: Positive test sends sprinting crashing back to darkest days

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The Independent Online

The news that Justin Gatlin, the Olympic and world 100 metres champion, faces a life ban after returning a positive dope test has sent athletics plunging back to the dark days when a doping infringement saw Ben Johnson stripped of the 1988 Olympic 100m title.

And coming, as it does, at a time when the winner of the Tour de France, Floyd Landis, is one confirmatory test away from being stripped of cycling's most prestigious title, it only serves to amplify the unfortunate message now being transmitted to the public upon whose faith and interest all sports depend: you have to cheat to win.

That depressing mantra has been predictably endorsed again this weekend by Johnson, who was banned for life in 1993 after failing a second doping test. "The spectators don't care," Johnson said. "The sponsors probably don't care ... all they want to see is the world's fastest man."

Paul Doyle, the agent whose client Asafa Powell now stands ready to become the sole owner of the title of world's fastest man following the adverse finding from his joint world 100m record-holder, insists Johnson has it wrong. "That's the way that people who are on drugs justify it," Doyle said. "They say, 'Oh, people don't care,' and, 'Everybody's on drugs and I'm just trying to level the playing field.' Any time a positive test comes out or an athlete gets banned it's a good thing in the long run."

It would certainly be good to believe Doyle. But that long run appears to be winding on over the horizon and beyond.

Last week, Doyle was questioned over Gatlin's continuing absence from competition because of a reported knee injury, and was asked whether he had any suspicions that the American was staying away from the track because of any complications relating to his coach, Trevor Graham, about whom numerous fresh doping allegations have been made.

"Justin is not involved in any of that stuff," said Doyle, who added he had been in weekly contact with Gatlin's agent, Renaldo Nehemiah. "I don't think that should come into play. As far as we know Justin has a pain behind his knee."

Now Doyle, and the world, knows different. Powell has reacted in a dignified and disappointed fashion. But in light of what has come out this weekend, his comments last month on the eve of the Gateshead meeting, where he had been due to meet Gatlin, and where he subsequently equalled his own world record of 9.77sec, resonate.

He described his incredulity upon hearing that Gatlin had broken his world record at an early-season meeting in Doha - the American's initial time of 9.76sec was belatedly rounded up to 9.77sec because of a timekeeping miscalculation. The Jamaican reporter relaying the news was told to go back and check his facts. At another point, Powell was asked why he thought he was so popular in his home country. He smiled in embarrassment for a while, before concluding: "Because I'm clean." It was an interesting response.

The assumption in athletics, as in cycling, has been that competitors would be deterred from cheating given their sport's recent vigorous doping clampdowns. Landis took to his bike for this year's Tour having seen two leading contenders, Jan Ullrich and Ivan Basso, ejected after a doping investigation. Gatlin is racing in a sport still suffering seismic shocks from the investigation of the Balco doping ring in California.

In Gatlin's case, the offence appears all the more acute because of his public insistence on keeping athletics clean. Asked last year about the bad publicity generated by the Balco scandal, he said: "There is a cloud, but we can take that cloud away. I know what to say no to and what to say yes to. If any allegations come up, I know it doesn't involve me." He added that winning the 2004 Olympic title had turned him into a man. "You have to go out knowing you have a lot of responsibility to a lot of kids," he said.

In spring of this year, Britain's 17-year-old World 100m and 200m Youth Champion, Harry Aikines-Aryeetey, was invited by Graham to join his group for a week's training in North Carolina.

The ebullient Carshalton schoolboy relished his chance to work with the likes of Gatlin and the Olympic 200m champion, Shawn Crawford. "For 30 metres I would actually be able to stay with Justin, but between 30 and 40 he'd decimate me," he said. "It was amazing to see what the human body can do." The question now is - what was that gap a measure of? And is it worth the likes of Aikines-Aryeetey trying to close it?