C'mon Justin, speak up and clean up your sport

Updated: September 5, 2006, 12:31 PM ET
By Eric Adelson | ESPN The Magazine

Don't disappear just yet, Justin Gatlin. Don't vanish into thin air as just the latest fraud in a lengthening list. There's one more important race left to run.

What hurt so much about Gatlin's positive sample result wasn't that he was an Olympic gold-medal athlete who turned up dirty. We're used to that now. What stung was that Gatlin seemed different -- kinder, more genuine, more real. He designed prom dresses for high school friends. He had an interest in art. He didn't seek fame and glamour as much as he craved speed. When I asked him in 2004 what he would do if he found out a fellow sprinter was using steroids, he said without hesitation that he would turn that person in. He seemed full of sincerity, not spin. After winning gold in the 100 meters in Athens Olympics, he declared himself "a clean champion," and the golden shoe seemed to fit.

Justin Gatlin
AP PhotoJustin Gatlin has said he didn't know how steroids got into his system and caused the recent positive test.

Two years later, he's banned from the sport. His world record has been blotted out, and his gold-medal 100 meter run in Athens has about as much credibility as a 90-home-run season on the moon. He's a cheater, knowingly or not.

But he still can be the Justin Gatlin so many expected. He can still be different.

Track needs a whistleblower. Baseball had Ken Caminiti and Jose Canseco. Those two were no angels, by any stretch, but their candor about steroids did help open some eyes and minds. Put it this way: Caminiti and Canseco did more for their sport in their confessions than anybody testifying before Congress did by not talking about the past. Imagine if even one of the major league players at that long table had told everything they had ever known about steroids. Imagine how much that would have done for baseball, and for sports itself. By now, 2006, we might feel like we are emerging from the darkness of the Steroid Era. Instead, we still feel like the worst is yet to come. And that confessor actually might have emerged with a positive image.

That's really the problem here. Cheaters have no incentive to talk. Not one. If they admit they took steroids, they lose everything they ever worked for. If they don't, maybe there's a chance of getting away with something.

But someone needs to tell test-flunkees that there's no longer incentive to avoid coming clean. We don't buy Floyd Landis' hangover defense, and we don't buy anything Marion Jones could claim. We're not listening. But if someone like Gatlin would pipe up and tell his story, we'd be rapt. And even if Gatlin truly didn't know how he tested positive, the attempt at sincerity would help the world understand how a good person from Brooklyn turned into another doping casualty.

"Since becoming an elite-level athlete, Justin has talked about the importance of eradicating doping in sport," said USOC chairman Peter Ueberroth. "By acknowledging his doping positive and agreeing to work with USADA, Justin now has an opportunity to put those words into action. He can play a meaningful role in solving a problem that is reaching a crisis level in American sport."

The only track athlete to publicly admit to taking performance-enhancing drugs in connection with l'affair BALCO is sprinter Kelli White, who confessed to taking the cream, the clear, EPO and modafinil back in 2004. White could have raised a huge stink, as she was the first track athlete to be suspended without first testing positive. But she took her suspension, assisted with the investigation, and as of last May she is out of trouble and out of track. And in the disturbing, sordid, and oddly thrilling account in the outstanding book Game of Shadows, White might be the only athlete who comes off as moderately heroic. It is not completely illogical to say she helped the sport.

Gatlin has two choices: He can duck and weave in the Landis style, coming up with inane excuses, or he can tell exactly what he knows. At the very least, that will throw a harsh light on those who run from accountability. At most, it can give the rest of us a road map to finding more villains, and tell us how they operate. And think about this: If Gatlin tells everything he knows, publicly and fully, won't drug pushers everywhere worry just a little bit more about to whom they are peddling their wares?

Gatlin has taken the first step. This suspension means he accepts that the failed test was accurate. That's about as close to the Kelli White realm as a track athlete has ever come. Anyone who has seen Gatlin race knows he's much better at the finish than at the start. He's only 24, and coming out of the blocks in what will be his new life.

Gatlin spent his early years becoming the world's fastest man. Now, he has a chance to become someone far more important.

Eric Adelson is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. He can be reached at eric.adelson@espn3.com.

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ESPN The Magazine
Eric Adelson was a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.

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