Today in Brussels, in the final Diamond League race of the year, Justin Gatlin won the men's 100-meters in a world-leading 9.77 seconds. With the League's conclusion, it's unlikely that a faster time will be run, meaning Gatlin, 32, has become the first non-Jamaican man since 2004 to hold the year's fastest time. No one will be talking about this.
Instead, track and field fans will be talking about doping and doping bans, just like they have all year. It's a timely issue: Starting on January 1, the IAAF, the sport's international governing body, will be upping the ante on first-time offenders, doubling the penalty to four years. But the main reason for all this talk is that Justin Gatlin, the fastest sprinter of the year, also served doping bans twice, the last from 2006 to 2010 in connection with BALCO, and in track and field, the scarlet letter for doping never goes away.
"Track is not baseball," said Jesse Squire of The Daily Relay. "Marion Jones [also connected with BALCO] did the Oprah thing and I think she's still the most hated person in the insular world of track & field. She'd be more liked if she had simultaneously whipped off her jersey and punched a mascot."
This has been a banner year for Gatlin, undefeated this season. He now holds seven of the top 10 times in 2014, along with the world-leading 200m time. With his Belgian win, he also won the DL's overall title in the event, the greatest accomplishment in worldwide competition during this odd fourth year when neither an Olympics or World Championships occurs. Despite this, at least three major meets refused to invite him.
While doping is always a hot topic in track, the main reason why the discussion around Gatlin has become particularly heated is because of his lonely spot at the top. Usain Bolt suffered a foot injury that prematurely ended his season, and the rest of the Jamaicans are either injured, running like shit, or coming off doping bans themselves. And then there are the lackluster performances of the Americans, led by veteran Michael Rodgers and post-doping-ban Tyson Gay. With no other points of interest, Gatlin's success have pulled the spotlight onto the only storyline available in the men's 100-meters.
But if this year's circumstances accentuated the doping dialogue, the real questions are ahead. With his league win, Gatlin should be considered by merit for IAAF Athlete of the Year. His name may not make the ballot, however, offering circumstantial evidence that the IAAF's deepest assessment of dopers aligns with its fans: while they may have served their time, their crimes will never be forgotten.
In the meantime, Gatlin's words from a recent ESPN profile seem particularly enlightened: "I look at myself as the 'Batman' of track—a vigilante. You may not like me, but I'm needed." In 2014, with no one else to turn to, track and field needed Justin Gatlin. That doesn't mean that they had to like it.
[Photo: AP Images]