Nick Butler

There is an infamous moment in television show Game of Thrones where numerous members of the much-loved Stark family have taken a break from their ongoing war against the hated Lannisters to celebrate a wedding.

It was meant to be a joyous occasion but as a viewer you cannot help but feel an underlying sense of trepidation and foreboding in the music and ambiance.

Suddenly, it becomes clear why as hundreds of hitherto loyal allies suddenly pull back their robes to reveal armour before embarking on a crusade of gore and bloodshed in which all present Starks are murdered.

It is one of the most notorious moments in a programme which shies from fairy-tales and happy endings.

It was also the scene that sprung into my mind on Saturday night as my brain slowly comprehended that Usain Bolt’s final coronation as the greatest sprinter in history had been pooped by none other than Justin Gatlin in the World Championships' blue ribbon 100 metres final.

An extreme comparison, maybe, but I felt similar feelings of utter shock as the scoreboard flashed up with the name of a man who had served two drugs bans earlier in his career and been relentlessly booed throughout the competition.

Everybody else appeared to feel the same way. Silence, and then more boos reverberated around the Stadium as even cameramen and announcers appeared keener to focus on third-placed Bolt rather than the winner.

Justin Gatlin edged Christian Coleman and Usain Bolt to claim 100m gold ©Getty Images
Justin Gatlin edged Christian Coleman and Usain Bolt to claim 100m gold ©Getty Images

It was surely the biggest ripping up of a sporting script since legendary Australian cricketer Sir Donald Bradman was bowled second ball for a duck in his final Test match when four runs would have left him with a career batting average of 100.

The reactions to Gatlin’s victory have already undergone two stages.

The first saw a chorus of opposition to the American’s sheer presence in the race. It saw figures from Jamaican Prime Minister Andrew Holness down demanding lifetime bans for drug cheats as the "evil"of dopers triumphed over the "good" of Bolt.

A second revisionist chorus swiftly hit back using two principal arguments.

The first involved highlighting the hypocrisy of booing only Gatlin when so many other convicted cheats - including Yohan Blake in the next lane of the 100m final - were also competing. Former British hurdler Andy Turner, a World Championship bronze medallist in 2011, even tweeted a list of 30 other figures implicated in doping cases who have not been booed.

Some even claimed that the booing was symbiotic of the same populist wave that has given rise to Brexit and Donald Trump. They blame the media for setting an agenda of ignorance which was then spread on social media.

There is certainly an element of truth here. Sport remains a platform for jingoism and, like in Russia where the "Anglo-Saxon lobby" are blamed for being behind the country's ban from these Championships, there is a British tendency to be suspicious of athletes from other countries while criticising those who question the performances of home grown athletes.

Americans, on the other hand, often seem blind to the way much of the rest of the world views the likes of sprinter Carl Lewis. Just last month, I was arguing this point with a Los Angeles Olympic bid official who was bemoaning how they were unable to use him as an ambassador during their European campaign.

Other commentators have leaped to the defence of Gatlin and claim his two failures were far from clear-cut. The 35-year-old received a two-year ban, reduced on a appeal, after a positive test for amphetamines in 2001 before a second suspension, reduced to eight and then four years, after a failure for testosterone.

The first came when he was a teenage student and was blamed on a medication he had long been prescribed for attention deficit disorder. Even the panel delivering the verdict seemed unconvinced and warned that his reputation should not be "unnecessarily tarnished".

But you know what they say. To get caught once may be an innocent mistake, but twice?

In 2006, the then reigning world and Olympic champion denied any wrongdoing after he tested positive for "testosterone or its precursor" - with the latter term a reference to anabolic steroids. It came shortly after cyclist Floyd Landis also failed for a testosterone imbalance following his staggering comeback to win that year’s Tour de France.

Landis eventually came clean and later played a pivotal role in providing testimonies leading to the downfall of his former team-mate Lance Armstrong. Gatlin, conversely, continued to deny wrongdoing and blamed a masseuse for rubbing cream containing the banned substance onto his back.

His masseuse Chris Whetstine strongly denied this and no truth has ever been found to back up Gatlin’s claim. His ban was reduced to eight and then to four years after he gave evidence that convicted his coach Trevor Graham. Graham, for the record, was heavily implicated in the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative - or BALCO - doping scandal and was associated multitude of other athletes who have failed tests or served bans, including Marion Jones and Tim Montgomery.

Justin Gatlin received his gold medal from IAAF President Sebastian Coe ©Getty Images
Justin Gatlin received his gold medal from IAAF President Sebastian Coe ©Getty Images

This, perhaps, lies at the heart of why many seasoned observers of athletics also struggle to warm to Gatlin. "If he would simply come out and say, ‘Look, I was naïve and badly advised by my coach, I made a mistake and have now changed’, I would consider him differently," one International Olympic Committee (IOC) member told me yesterday.

It is clearly therefore not just the "ignorant" baying mob who single out Gatlin from other figures. Alberto Contador, the Spanish cyclist who has announced today that he will retire at the end of the year, is also a drugs cheat but has been far more approachable and consequently accepted by press and public since returning to the sport. 

Surely a better public relations campaign by Nike and other representatives to present him as a contrite and reformed victim of circumstances would also help improve Gatlin's reputation?

Gatlin, remember, is coached today by former sprinter Dennis Mitchell. He is the man who in 1998 blamed a failed test for testosterone on "five bottles of beer and sex with his wife at least four times…it was her birthday, the lady deserved a treat." His coach when competing? Trevor Graham.

Even the comparative nanosecond of working as a journalist in this world for four years has taught me to be sceptical about performances - and excuses.

And yet…could it be argued that Gatlin’s victory over Bolt - and, lest we forget, his young team-mate and silver medallist Christian Coleman - was actually a good thing for athletics?

This point has already been eloquently made by Matt Lawton in today’s Daily Mail. He points out that for too long athletics has been able to hide behind the success of Bolt and will now be forced to do more to confront its problems. Is being booed after winning gold also the greatest incentive not to fail a test in the first place?

In the bar of the Marriott hotel yesterday, I was sitting next to my editor Duncan Mackay, who has been covering athletics for 30 years. On several occasions, he made disparaging noises as an old agent, athlete or coach linked to historic doping cases wandered in wearing official IAAF accreditation. Surely this should be stamped out, for starters...

At the same time, it has also been notable in Britain that athletics is currently dominating the back and front pages of newspapers even during a Test cricket match and the start of a new football season.

A good and evil narrative may be unfair but it is also a way to get people to turn on the television. You can guarantee that people will be tuning in for the 4x100m relay final next weekend who would usually bulk at the prospect of wasting time watch a running race. 

Sport, for all its problems, remains capable of brilliant moments of unpredictability.

"In elections, you maybe know the result beforehand," one African official told me knowingly. "But not on the track."

The IAAF World Championships has generated huge attention ©Getty Images
The IAAF World Championships has generated huge attention ©Getty Images

"For the first time in living memory you caused Tube train passengers to break into spontaneous conversation with their neighbours about subjects other than their trod-on toes," declared former London Mayor Boris Johnson when addressing medal winners after the 2012 Olympics.

This has happened again on the past two nights as we have travelled back from Stratford. On the first, we found ourselves in agreement with a couple who were furious about the booing. "It is disrespectful, just not British," they declared in the sort of mournful tone which suggested they had been unhappy with the state of the country ever since the Rolling Stones released their first single in 1962.

On the second, our accreditation was spotted by a gentleman who delighted in lecturing a group of photographers next to us about how they should do their job before launching into a defence of Gatlin. "You may just think I am a crazy drunk man," he announced. "But people don’t know the struggle Gatlin has been through. London people are all haters."

Drugs in sport is increasingly not a black and white issue and operates in varying shades of grey.

This brings us back to Game of Thrones, which is famous for complex characters who are neither fully "good" nor "bad". One, for instance, who now appears largely on the good side achieved notoriety in series one for throwing a child out of a castle tower after he accidentally saw him committing incest…

Athletes, like television characters, can change and reform. But neither should their mistakes and the context which permitted them be forgotten.