Peter Hoffmann: A bad smell about Gatlin’s win, for many reasons

Justin Gatlin's gold medal was earned, however you look at it. Picture: Getty
Justin Gatlin's gold medal was earned, however you look at it. Picture: Getty
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It stinks – that’s the rather wonderful criterion being used to adjudge the Justin Gatlin fiasco after he beat crowd favourite Usain Bolt over the 100 metres at this year’s World Athletics Championships. But for whom is the smell unpalatable?

It’s a complex issue because of the sheer range of stakeholders with a place in the game.

For some there was a distinct hook, for others it’s more perfumed. For some it was both. For the main protagonist, Gatlin, it was both. Because of the rules he could compete, but extraordinarily he couldn’t perform a lap of honour to take the plaudits of the crowd. The crowd had spoken, particularly as he had intemperately raised his finger to his mouth gesturing how he’d just silenced them. Big mistake.

In that moment Gatlin was the perfect embodiment of a Pyrrhic victory: ‘…a victory that inflicts such a devastating toll on the victor that it is tantamount to defeat…’

Bolt was never greater than in defeat, displaying an interesting natural intelligence, maturity and sense. His reaction was one of class, but also humanity too, as he put an arm around Gatlin and spoke gently to him; ironically it was the loser comforting the winner. And contradictorily still it was the person who finished third who was able to perform a victory lap.

As Gatlin lay on the ground in tears afterwards I thought they were tears of regret; regret for being unable to take that lap of the track, probably caused by previous bad decisions from a very talented athlete who never needed to do anything underhand. Then again, it may have been from a sense of injustice too, because the background to his bans is not as straightforward as the media has promulgated. From them there were many crocodile tears over the pong; whatever the scent, all news is good news.

And talking of tears, I found Gatlin’s quite poignant as the world saw him seek out the quiet, solitary embrace and comfort of his parents’ arms in contrast to the crowd’s mass adulation for Bolt.

For the crowd there was a definite whiff of injustice. But the crowd is fickle. I don’t go along with much of the waffle and high-mindedness that they shouldn’t boo. Of course they should. They’ve paid hard-earned money. Sport’s entertainment. They booed at the Globe Theatre four centuries before. And in many ways they spoke for the common man.

As for Gatlin’s American rivals for a place on the team, one would have thought it stank for them, but then again they may feel the guy’s served his time.

As for the sponsors, surely it must stink, but it’s attracting a lot of publicity.

As for the IAAF, well they’ll be worried about the future of the sport, but they are in a difficult position. With such issues there’s always the principle and the point and that judicious balance between the two polar extremes. They are charged with seeking out that elusive balancing point, like a tightrope walker on a wire – always likely to give off a bad smell!

Peter Hoffmann has just published ‘A Life In A Day In A Year – A Postcard From Meadowbank. He was previously an Olympic, European and Commonwealth athlete