Blogs

How doping stole my innocence

Joe Rafferty is a former junior international athlete who has worked within the athletics industry for over 14 years. Nike’s re-signing of Justin Gatlin has left this athletics aficionado in a spin and he wrote us a blog to chart the process.

Joe Rafferty

Drugs and athletics, athletics and drugs. Like death and taxes, or so it has seemed over the last few weeks.

I’ve been involved in the world of athletics since I was 12-years-old. That involvement has been in many different forms; an athlete, a volunteer, a shoe company rep, an agent, an event organiser and always as a fan. Athletics and I have had our ups and downs. In such a long relationship, how could we not? She always comes back to me though.

I grew up knowing a sport that was full of honour, camaraderie and fair competition. Before you think I’ve been at the sherry and Werthers Originals, I’m 35. Dave Mathews leading the National Seniors, yet still urging Derek O’Connor down the home straight in Santry towards the 800m standard for Atlanta was a highlight.

My heroes, all of whom I’ve met, some I am happy to now call friends, were Sonia O’Sullivan, Derek O’Connor, Colin Jackson, TJ Kearns, Michael Johnson, Frankie Fredricks and Cathy Freeman. Mid-week, post-training, Jim Rozenthal in Rieti, Stuttgart, Oslo. All free to air. Sometimes 2-3 times a week. It was bliss….and looking back, ignorance too.

The first questions of doubt

The first time I remember questioning athletic performances was 2001. Paula Radcliffe’s banner in Edmonton, how could you not? Then 2002 hit. What had happened Dwain Chambers? He was flying and was as big as a house! What the hell had happened to Tim Montgomery? From US squad runner to world record holder in two years. During this period I’d read and learned a lot about Lance Armstrong and the cycling situation. Surely athletics wasn’t the same?

Since then I’ve heard rumour after rumour, I’ve seen things I thought I’d never see and I’ve become a bigger cynic than I ever thought imaginable.

4 year athletics experts, you know the ones, tell me I’m just bitter. They throw out the great line; “Sure if they’re all at it you might as well legalise it.” That’s a discussion for another day. Suffice to say, it would be madness.

Kim Collins 2003. In the shadow of Kelli White, Dwain and what would soon be known around the sport world as BALCO, Kim never got the credit he deserved. A big push from WADA and Mo Greene goes out in the semi’s in 10.37.Olympic Champ 3 years previously. World Record Holder. Running 0.5 under his best. Coincidence….sure.

Brand betrayal

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I spent the 2003 World Championships in Paris working for Nike. What an experience that was. Dinner with Freeman one night, drinks with Felix Sanchez and his manager after his victory the next. It was like all my dreams come true. Yet in the Nike hospitality having his lunch was Remi Korchemny. Why would Nike, the brand I worked for a brand born out of the love for running, allow the coach implicated in the Chambers/White drug supply (and would go onto be implicated as one of the key figures in BALCO) to sit and have his lunch decked head to foot in Nike, at their “invitation only” hospitality? Must have been a mistake, right?

I had many more fantastic experiences with Nike. Paula, Johnson, Sonia. Met them all. The hero list was being ticked off one by one. It’s Nike and their recent activities that have made me feel like writing. New shoe? Inspiring Ad? Ridiculous football ad? All plausible, but no. Justin Gatlin. Justin f*cking Gatlin. Prick.

Awe in Athens: a Greek tragedy

I knew Gatlin’s name from his high school and college performances in the US. Watching him race you could see the mechanics. This guy was amazing. I knew about the drug suspension. He didn’t know his A.D.D. meds were on the list. Fair one, I thought. I could understand that. About a month before the Athens Games our training group were sitting on the track in Belfield discussing potential winners in Athens. “Greene, has to be Greene” said one, “Nah, it’ll be Collins, sure he’s world champ” said another. Gatlin got a cursory mention, but was a big outsider.

Sitting on the back straight, top level, above the 1500m start line that night in Athens I had an amazing view. BOOM! Gatlin. Later as we drank warm Heineken and ate cold hot dogs on the concourse of the stadium we purred over Gatlin’s performance.

The next day I was at the Nike hospitality just before closing and heading to the track to watch Sonia’s 5000m final. In walks Gatlin with his entourage. Bingo. Out of my back pack came the Nike Team USA T-shirt I was looking for someone to sign. Sharpie in the other hand I approached him. No problem. “Justin Gatlin, 08/22/2004. 9.85. Olympic Champion”. Only thing that could beat that was Sonia bringing home a medal. She didn’t, but my god she gave us a night to remember at the stadium. For 16 minutes the Athens Olympic Stadium might as well have been the Mardyke and Sonia about to break the world record. A fitting reception for an all time great. That night, Gatlin shirt in hand, we talked about how great it was that Greene was beaten into third. Cheating git.

The warm beer flowed and cold hot dogs hit the spot each night as we dissected every performance. That week Holmes beats the Russians, a US college kid takes the 400m, GB beat the yanks in the 4x100m. The future was bright, the future was clean. Athletics had done what cycling couldn’t. We’d nipped it in the bud. Hadn’t we?

Dream job with adidas has drawbacks

Shortly after Athens I left Nike and joined adidas. Working in their sports marketing team with the responsibility for identifying the athletes to represent the brand. When I described the job to my Dad 9 months later in Manchester his question was perfect, “And they pay you to do this?”. The upside – being paid to travel to every major champs, work with Olympic Champions day to day, be a part of the circuit.The downside – seeing under the hood of the sport.

What great days. The sport was fighting back, and we were winning! BALCO put paid to the top US sprinters and saw the rise of the Caribbean. Operation Puerto put paid to the Spanish distance runners. Pre Puerto the Spaniards regularly had 3 athletes in every distance final from 1500m-10,000m. Post Puerto, you could count their finalists on one hand. The Russians women were finally beatable. YES! There were other scandals. Marion Jones and her former agent Charlie Wells convicted of cheque fraud. Oh how the mighty had fallen. We were winning the drug war though, right?

Gatlin’s ban surely the end…

July 2006, Crystal Palace. All the talk was about Gatlin. He’d been done. There’d been a punch up at the US trials in a night club over it. Surely not….not the young guy I’d watched in awe in Athens? Sitting eating a curry in Croydon with colleagues a couple of nights before the meet it was all the talk. July 29th, Justin Gatlin’s B sample also showed testosterone or a precursor to. 4 year ban. Prick. Cheating prick.

Having had his first positive test in college annulled, he wasn’t classed as having two positive tests dictating a life ban. He’d come back. He’d try American football along the way, but he would be back.

Meet directors would ban him, fans would boo him, sponsors wouldn’t touch him. Right?

Gatlin came back in late 2010 and ran two small meets in Eastern Europe, not breaking 10.2 in either. He had trained all year that year.

2011 Gatlin ran 9.95, ranked 6th amongst his US colleagues.Joint 15th in the world. He had a deal with an unknown Chinese brand. 4th at the final Diamond League in Brussels. It seemed all was forgiven.

2012 Gatlin 9.79, ranked 3rd in the world behind Bolt & Blake,the new power. Olympic Bronze too. He was back at all the big meets. All was definitely forgiven.

2013 Gatlin 9.85, ranked 2nd in the world behind Bolt.

2014 Gatlin 9.77, world number 1. In fact he ran 7 time under 9.90. 7 of the 10 fastest times in 2014. Diamond League winner. At this point he is 32 years old and ‘clean’. This ‘clean’ 32 year old is running faster than he ever did when he was doping. He’s still with the unknown Chinese brand. Add to this that Justin Gatlin is now coached by Dennis Mitchell, himself a former sprinter and convicted drugs cheat.

Nike, remember them? The brand who dumped Lance Armstrong when he got banned 2 years ago. They didn’t want to be associated with Armstrong and what he had done.

Last week Nike re-signed Justin Gatlin. Despite knowing all of the above Nike made the decision to sign Gatlin to, what I am told, is a 7 figure deal over 3 years. During my induction at Nike I must have missed the Maxim (Nike’s core philosophies) that said “We celebrate and reward cheats.”

Love/Hate

I despair. A brand born from the love of running by Bill Bowerman, inspired by Steve Prefontaine, thinks it’s not only ok for an athlete with as dubious a past as Gatlin to wear their product, they actually want to pay him to do so.

As the summer approaches I wonder whether I want to spend the time and energy watching the Diamond League. I’ll shout at the TV, I’ll post on Facebook or Twitter about how vile Gatlin is as he drops 9.76 and earns a fat Nike bonus. Can I be bothered anymore? I hope so.

I love this sport. Always have, always will. Cycling cured their cancer. I hope athletics does too.

Bolt flashing his abs in Rome. Image courtesy of PhotoRun
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Feidhlim Kelly

Feidhlim Kelly

Con Houlihan once told me that tomorrow is now. In taking on this venture I’ve started to try and put his words into action.

I worked for Con from 2007 till his passing in 2012 taking down his copy and a whole lot more. I have a Con Houlihan section which will go in to more depth on that.

I’m a long-time contributor to the Irish Runner magazine and am also working for the Irish Examiner.

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