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Stride Nation Roundtable: Should Justin Gatlin Be Allowed to Compete in Rio?

In this pre-Olympics edition of the Stride Nation Roundtable, we discuss Justin Gatlin and lifetime suspensions for PEDs, how we feel about non-PED drugs, and competitive etiquette and decorum.

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Track and Field: 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Trials - Track & Field Glenn Andrews-USA TODAY Sports

In advance of the Rio Olympics, we felt compelled to take some time to talk about the issue that just won’t go away even though we all want it to: doping. I think I speak for Jeff when I say that we would both rather focus on the actual competition than get stuck in these conversations about doping, hyperandrogenism, and the like that take away from full enjoyment of what transpires on the track and in the field. But, here we are; such is our lot as fans of track and field at this particular moment in history.

Eric Chesterton: Ok, this has to be our next discussion:

Lilly King: Justin Gatlin, Tyson Gay, other U.S. dopers don't belong in Olympics. The swimming star took her crusade against doping to a new level after winning gold.

Jeff Duncan: I think they don't belong in the Olympics - from an ethical standard they cheated and that is an egregious violation that warrants being separated from the sport. From a biological perspective there is evidence to support that these athletes will see long term benefits of their drug use .On a less scientific and more anecdotal level, once you reach a new level of fitness it's so much easier to get back there. So for example, if Tyson Gay ran 9.6 with or without drugs, it's gotta be a lot easier for him to run 9.8 or 9.9 two or three years later.

Eric Chesterton: I definitely agree that those gains certainly don't go away entirely. As long as you keep training and don't let yourself go during your suspension, that artificial fitness gain isn't going to just evaporate.

But, at the same time, what does a lifetime ban for a drug violation mean? It seems to me more a lifetime suspension because you violated some ethical code of trustworthiness rather than for the actual violation--a specific violation over a certain period of time.

Maybe this is too American a perspective coming from a justice system that, at least nominally, operates on a maxim of innocent until proven guilty, but for me, absent subsequent positive tests, the presumption of innocence extends to Gatlin's current performances. The reason the IAAF enacted a complete ban of Russia wasn't for their past violations but because the systematic nature of the past violations wiped the presumption of innocence.

Not quite to his credit ethically, but to his credit for our purposes, Gatlin hasn't exactly shown any sort of unique ability to avoid testing positive. If he's not testing positive now, we have to decide whether a) he's gotten better at concealing his doping or b) he's not currently doping. I guess I side with B absent evidence to the contrary.

Jeff Duncan: Whether or not the person was knowingly or not taking the drugs, they will still reap the benefits of the performance enhancing drugs. Banning a country seems like a different sort of issue. Russia seems only to be banned for the Olympics. I wonder if these athletes who have tested positive in the past could be allowed to compete later in the season or at next year's WC, instead.

The bottom line for me is, whether or not they intend to cheat, they cheated. It is your responsibility to know what is going into your body and know the people you trust. If you can't know then you're taking a risk. It might hurt an athlete in a freak situation if you believe someone like Gatlin's crazy story but it preserves the sport. By giving these shorter bans, we are basically saying that cheating is a system that you should try to game because at the end of the day, two years out of the sport is fine if you get to keep all the money, all the accolades and you get to come back anyways. That's better than getting less overall money and risking not earning anything.

So to me, if Gatlin is cheating now or not isn't even factoring into the equation. I think lifetime bans shouldn't necessarily be about the intent of the athlete - it's about the action. We will never know if they intend to continue cheating.

I also think that these athletes need to have their performances nullified. If it was unclear that they were or were not cheating, then perhaps the best course of action is just to not reward the medals in those situations. But to let them keep money, medals and come back to compete seems too generous for people who were openly gaming the system. I will be the first to admit that the rules are often arbitrary but at least they're well defined (in most instances).

Eric Chesterton: Changing topics slightly because I think this is interesting, particularly following the history and evolution of PED use in baseball: What do you do with someone like Inika McPherson who served a 21-month ban for cocaine? If she were Russian, she wouldn't be allowed to compete, right?

Jeff Duncan: Yeah ok, so i think this is a particular caveat to my lifetime ban policy- i think we need to be looking at these drugs specifically. What're they testing positive for? That seems more like an ethical issue rather than a performance enhancing one. I think a year long ban for things like that is more reasonable.

Taking testosterone or EPO is definitely far more egregious than taking one off amphetamines because one is giving you a really long performance boost the other is acute. The system is already sort of like this but it seems pretty arbitrary - there needs to be hard evidence backing this.

Eric Chesterton: As someone who follows baseball, this debate comes up every year around Hall of Fame election season. The old sports writers see Barry Bonds and say, "oh no! He can't be in the HOF, he cheated." and Twitter responds with "what about Hank Aaron and players of his era using amphetamines?"

Obviously baseball is different, as the heightened focus from amphetamines certainly has some real performance enhancing benefit for hitting a baseball. But, still it seems to be on a different level than taking HGH or some sort of anabolic thing.

What benefit would cocaine have in the high jump?

Jeff Duncan: It is probably more than likely that taking cocaine might hinder performance, according to some research. This is because of the jitters as well as the perceptual and time distorting aspects of taking the drug. It would block pain and probably help you to recruit more muscles when tired - like in the later rounds when you're trying to clear those higher heights on muscles that have been in competition all day. Plus they may contribute to focus in some sense but that is questionable.

I think there are probably amphetamines that aren't cocaine that could be used in a judicious way to improve performance in the high jump by a few inches - enough to make the difference between 1st and 4th but maybe not between 1st and 12th.

Eric Chesterton: To paraphrase: McPherson can snort cocaine off the high jump bar as she's soaring over it for all we care. Actually, please do that. That would be fun. Kind of like Bill Simmons' story from his basketball book about David Thompson trying to snort the foul line during an NBA game.

Jeff Duncan: It would at least bring more fans.

Eric Chesterton: Which we know track desperately needs for all but one week every four years.

Jeff Duncan: When it suddenly soars to one of the most popular events.

Eric Chesterton: Anyway, I'm on the record as not caring that much about PEDs, but if you're going to ban someone, I need to know that they did something to get an unfair advantage against the competition.

As a fan, I can choose to root for or against morally corrupt athletes--domestic violence, off-field crimes, drug use, etc--but sports shouldn't be in the business of declaring who are moral beacons worthy of fandom. That's why I'm fine with McPherson, or the theoretical Russian athlete whose only ban was for something similar

Jeff Duncan: I don't think it should be within the power of the sport to ban someone for their lifestyle choices so I'm with you on this one. It's one thing to take cocaine pre-competition to augment performance and another to do so off the track or high jump pitch... I may not be a fan of that athlete but it has nothing to do with their sports ability. Isn't that the Olympic message anyways? Coming together to see who is the fastest, strongest, best athletes regardless of political, socioeconomic or any other factor that's irrelevant to their sports performance.

If anything the performances are all the more beautiful and exciting when their is an external narrative. It's like the USSR vs USA in any sport during the cold war. Every competition was its own real war.

Eric Chesterton: I'm going to belabor the baseball point because it's what I know best, but it's what they're doing with chewing tobacco. You can use it; hell, you can use it during games. Just don't bring the tin of dip into an area that could end up on camera.

Jeff Duncan: think when you're on the competition field you should be acting like its a suit and tie affair. Haile Geb always said he didn't spit or do other things he might do in training. Not sure it goes that far but basically i think i agree that there are certain behaviors that will be fine to do off camera, off field, and so on but not a good thing to do when you're competing. Like the cocaine thing.

Eric Chesterton: I'm decidedly not into the suit-and-tie affair theory if only because track needs nothing else to seem more boring and its athletes less compelling. Athletes should be having fun. I love celebrations and any displays of personality. Obviously there are lines to that, but track athletes are so far in the clear of them that we are better off pretending there aren't lines. That's a matter for another day when we talk after the Olympics about how to make track fun and get people to keep watching.

I guess there's one last question: as an American, will you be cheering for Justin Gatlin?

Jeff Duncan: I won't be. I’m not sure if it is necessarily the drugs thing exactly. I think the drug thing makes me want to find reasons not to like him, but also I don't buy his story. it just seems too crazy to me to believe it. I like Tyson Gay, though and he is basically in the same boat.

How about you?

I think i'd be happy if he won over Bolt, because i think it would be interesting but i'd be happier if Trayvon Bromell was the guy instead.

Eric Chesterton: I'll be cheering for him if only to ramp up the popularity of the sport by means of a rivalry with Bolt. I'd prefer to see Bromell win since he's younger and I don't want to talk about doping any more than I absolutely have to.

I will say that I admire Gatlin for using his time on the mic at the Trials to address some of the shootings that were going on at the time. I'm a big opponent of the "stick to sports" cries, so Gatlin using his 30 seconds of air time to ignore sports was refreshing.

Jeff Duncan: I think celebrations, shoving, and just generally being a little bit more forthcoming would all benefit our sport. How many interviews have you heard in track and field where you've heard that training has been going great or that they haven't started speed work or whatever the same cliched line is? I love it when Centro comes across the line and does a dance or something. It's so badass and it's probably some part of why I really love Centro. Or even when Robby Andrews won NCAA and he just had this super powerful interview where he said he believed in himself and his coach and his family, etc. And in races, too, it makes it interesting. I love watching Rupp get pissed off at people for stepping on his feet. He is always shooting dirty looks and looks like he borderline might slap them (like we saw at bix 7). I think that seeing athletes with strong political opinions is always super great. I liked when Billy Nelson, the 2008 steeplechase Olympian, wore a "FREE LEONARD PELTIER" cut-off t-shirt. I didn't have a clue who Leonard Peltier was until then or what his story was.

I think those political messages can be really polarizing and either way it makes people care about the athletes. In any sport, the reasons why people like someone or dislike someone are rarely related to their performances and more about their personalities.

Programming Note: We’re still working on our Olympic Preview, which should go live in 24 hours or so. We’re going to have a little more fun with this one than we have with some previous previews in ways that, we hope, will better enhance your experience watching the competition in Rio. Stay tuned!