It was supposed to be a moment of unbridled celebration, a glittering farewell to the man who has been a totem for all that is good about athletics amid a miserable chain of corruption and doping scandals. But boos rang out inside the London Stadium as Justin Gatlin, a twice-convicted drugs cheat, stood atop the podium where most expected Usain Bolt would be.
The reaction of the crowd was not as raw as it had been the previous evening, when Gatlin’s shock 100m victory rendered most momentarily silent before a chorus of boos took hold. An additional day had calmed passions but athletics again finds its showpiece event eclipsed by debate over drugs cheats.
When Usain Bolt was called up to receive his world championships bronze medal, the result of his first failure in a major final since 2011, the crowd rose to their feet and gave him a rousing applause. The Jamaican, who will retire after the 4x100m relay on Saturday, beamed and clapped all corners of this magical stadium. When it was Gatlin’s turn to assume his position on the top step the American remained stony faced as sections of the crowd made their distaste known.
Sebastian Coe, the president of the International Association of Athletics Federations, looked uncomfortable as he presented the medals, hanging the sport’s biggest prize round the neck of one of its most infamous cheats.
The time of the medal ceremony had earlier been switched from 8pm to 6.50pm in what looked like a hasty attempt to minimise bad publicity. The IAAF insisted it was an administration error rather than anything to do with the raging controversy around the result. But cynics might suggest holding it 10 minutes before the international television feed began and when some spectators were still undergoing security checks to enter the stadium was an attempt to turn down the volume of disgust.
Lord Coe had suggested before the championships began that the sport’s biggest challenge was not doping, but remaining relevant to young people. After spending much of the day fielding questions about Gatlin and what his victory means for the future of athletics he may have changed his mind.
Gatlin is now 35 and his two bans date back to early in his career. The first was in 2001 for Adderall, a drug containing an amphetamine that Gatlin said he had taken since childhood to combat attention deficit disorder. The United States Anti-Doping Agency banned him for two years, later reduced to one.
Gatlin has previously said: “Last time I checked, someone who takes medication for a disorder is not a doper. Other people in the sport have taken the same medication I had for ADD and only got warnings, I didn’t.”
But in 2006 Gatlin was banned for eight years, later reduced to four, when he failed a test for the banned steroid testosterone. When he returned in 2010, Gatlin did not set the world alight with his times but by 2015 he was running quicker than he ever had before and many expected him to produce the nightmare scenario and beat Bolt at that year’s world championships.
Coe said at the time the idea of Gatlin beating Bolt, the only man in history to have run under 9.79sec clean, made him feel queasy. He did not engage in such emotive language on Sunday but insisted that the IAAF had campaigned for lifetime bans for drugs cheats. “There have been two bans in the past, one which got watered down which made it very difficult for the second ban,” he said, speaking to BBC Radio 5 Live’s Sportsweek.
“The second ban we went for an eight-year ban which would have in essence been a life ban – we lost that. So these things are suffused in legality. I’m not eulogistic that somebody that has served two bans in our sport would walk off with one of our glittering prizes, but he is eligible to be here.”