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Sports Justin Gatlin’s win at worlds renews calls for lifelong doping bans

From left, the United States’ Justin Gatlin, Jamaica’s Yohan Blake, South Africa’s Akani Simbine, the United States’ Christian Coleman and Jamaica’s Usain Bolt dash for the finish line in London.

Matt Dunham/AP

When Justin Gatlin flew past Usain Bolt to win the 100 metres at the world athletics championships on Saturday, he not only ruined the storybook ending to Mr. Bolt's career – he also left track fans and officials squirming at the optics.

For a sport desperate to move beyond a history of doping, Mr. Gatlin's victory over Mr. Bolt, who finished third, was an awkward moment and it reopened the debate about whether athletes who test positive for banned drugs should receive a lifetime ban. The 35-year old American is a two-time doping offender. He served a one-year ban in 2004 for testing positive for an amphetamine used in attention-deficit-disorder medication and was hit with a four-year ban in 2006 for using steroids.

The 100-metre final "was not the perfect script," said Sebastian Coe, the head of track's governing body, the IAAF. "I'm not eulogistic that someone who has served two bans has walked off with one of our glittering prizes," Mr. Coe told the BBC. "But he is eligible to be here."

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It's a tricky moment for track. For nearly a decade, Mr. Bolt, 30, has been seen as something of a saviour for the sport, someone who ran like nobody else and won fans all over the world with an engaging personality and never a hint of doping. The Jamaican has also been one of track's most outspoken athletes against cheating, warning fellow competitors just last week that if they didn't stop doping the sport would die.

"You can't be happy about doping," he said.

This week's championships will be his last competition. Mr. Bolt is bowing out after the 4x100-metre relay on Sunday.

And while he wasn't considered a favourite to win the 100 metres, few were betting against Mr. Bolt, who has won 11 world titles. Mr. Gatlin's win was something of a surprise.

The reception to both men in London has been notable in its contrast. Mr. Bolt has been greeted with raucous cheers every time he has stepped on to the track at the London Stadium while Mr. Gatlin has faced a chorus of jeers. That carried on to the medal ceremony Sunday night, when fans gave Mr. Bolt a rapturous ovation for his bronze medal and many still booed Mr. Gatlin when he received the gold.

Canadians had been hoping to cheer for Andre De Grasse, whose rivalry with Mr. Bolt provided added interest in the competition. But Mr. De Grasse withdrew from the championships last week because of a torn hamstring.

Mr. Bolt tried to come to Mr. Gatlin's defence, saying after Saturday's race that Mr. Gatlin was a worthy competitor who deserved his victory. "He's done his time," Mr. Bolt said. "I just look at him as another competitor and on the day today he was a better man."

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He also got testy with a reporter who wondered if the slower times in the 100 metres were because athletes feared tougher drug testing. Mr. Gatlin won the race in 9.92 seconds, followed by 21-year-old Christian Coleman of the United States in 9.94 and Mr. Bolt in 9.95. That's well off Mr. Bolt's world record of 9.58 seconds. Mr. Bolt called the question "disrespectful" and went on to defend Mr. Gatlin. "As I said, Justin has done his time through the years and he's proven himself over and over again. I've proven myself over and over again."

Mr. Gatlin dismissed the booing and indicated that he didn't care about the controversy. "I didn't really focus on the booing. … I just stayed focused on what I had to do.

"I really don't need to understand [the outcry]," he added. "I've done my time. I've come back. I did community service. I talked to kids, I actually inspired kids … and that's all I can do. Society does that with people who have made mistakes and I hope that track and field understands that, too."

But many are less forgiving than Mr. Bolt. There have been calls to issue lifetime bans for athletes caught doping. In fact, Mr. Gatlin wasn't the only offender in the 100-metre final. Jamaica's Yohan Blake, who finished fourth, served a three-month ban in 2009 for taking a banned substance.

On Sunday, Mr. Coe reiterated his call for lifetime bans and blamed the World Anti-Doping Agency's appeal process and courts for reducing penalties. Mr. Gatlin's bans were both cut in half after lengthy appeals.

"There have been two bans in the past [against Mr. Gatlin]," Mr. Coe told the BBC. "One got watered down, which made it very difficult for the second ban. The second ban, [the IAAF] went for an eight-year ban, which would have, in essence, been a life ban. We lost that."

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Mr. Coe said he would keep pushing for lifetime bans in the wake of Mr. Gatlin's win.

WADA increased the minimum ban for doping to four years from two years in 2015, but the agency has argued in the past that lifetime bans would not be legally enforceable. Nonetheless, others have joined the call for longer punishments including Jamaica's Prime Minister Andrew Holness, who said on Saturday that it's "the only way you're going to fully ensure that people don't cheat in sport."

The head coach of the Canadian team at the world championships, former sprinter Glenroy Gilbert, who won an Olympic gold medal in 1996 as a member of Canada's 4x100 relay, also agreed that lifetime bans were essential to clean up the sport.

"As far as I'm concerned we are trying to create a drug-free sport in athletics and I think that if someone wants to go on the other side of that they should be banned for life," Mr. Gilbert said on Sunday. He declined to comment on Mr. Gatlin in particular, saying "he's not the only one, there's been many people before and after him." But, he added: "We're trying to make a sport that's clean and obviously that entertains the world and I think that when you have … people that kind of look at it going 'well how many people in that race are clean', we don't want that."

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