Nearly 15 minutes of the press conference have already passed when a journalist asks a question from the floor that changes the mood. This is about the last seven minutes and 16 seconds of that conference. Justin Gatlin lowers a bottle of water from his lips and listens to what the journalist is saying.
Next to him on the dais, Usain Bolt, who has just been beaten into third place in his last individual race before retirement, closes his eyes and drags his fingers across his forehead in a gesture that is part weariness and part dawning irritation. Christian Coleman, on the other side of Gatlin, is new to all this. He listens, too.
What follows tells you all you need to know about the grotesque dystopia that is modern athletics. All the stages of a sport’s crushing defeat, all the stops on its descent, are mapped out in its exchanges.
Bolt laughed off the question while he was sat alongside Justin Gatlin and Christian Coleman
Bolt (far right) poses with Americans Coleman and Gatlin after finishing third in London
There is vituperation, there is intimidation, there is ignorance, there is disingenuousness, there is sycophancy and, most of all, there is denial. There is lots and lots and lots of denial.
For 436 seconds, Gatlin and Bolt play a scene straight out of Icarus, the recently released documentary about Grigory Rodchenkov, the former director of Russia’s anti-doping laboratory who blew the whistle on the country’s state-sponsored doping programme.
Icarus makes heavy references to the three stages of reintegration in George Orwell’s novel, 1984: learning, understanding and acceptance. They are all writ large here in the crowded conference room at the London Stadium.
We are almost a quarter of an hour into the audience with the medallists in the men’s 100m at the 2017 World Athletics Championships last Saturday night when the question comes in a foreign voice speaking clear English. It is addressed to all of them.
‘The winning time today,’ says the journalist, ‘was the slowest for a gold medallist since 2003 and the marks in general were much slower than the last edition of the World Championships. I would like to know from you guys whether you think there is any kind of relationship with a stronger anti-doping control?’
Bolt is not accustomed to being asked questions like this; informed, reasonable questions that are based in fact and which make a valid point that demands a considered answer.
Bolt is used to journalists swooning in front of him. He is used to them asking for selfies, fawning over him, serving up easy inquiries that he can swat away with his charisma and his humour. He is used to being indulged. That is his staple. So this is a bit different. Bolt doesn’t like it.
‘Whoa, whoa, whoa, what?’ says Bolt, looking around the room in astonishment, playing to the gallery. ‘What’s she saying here?’ Some journalists start laughing. You always get that. People who want to try to impress the big star. People who laugh at all his jokes. Journalists who become acolytes. Gatlin, the new champion, laughs, too.
The woman is not deterred. She doesn’t want to play Bolt’s stupid game. So she starts to ask it again. Bolt cuts her off rudely. ‘I heard you but I’m saying “What?” ‘ he says.
Patiently, the woman repeats her question. She will not be intimidated. ‘This season,’ she says, ‘and also in the last World Championships, we have slower times, much slower. We have 21 sub-10 times in the Beijing World Championships and, in this edition, less than 10. I would like to understand why and if you think there is any relationship with stronger anti-doping control.’
Bolt signals that he wants to answer. ‘First of all, I’m sure everybody up here takes that very disrespectful,’ he says. ‘We have worked hard. Justin has done his time throughout the years and he has proven himself over and over again and I have proven myself over and over again.
‘There is something called injury. For you to directly say something or state something to all three of us, I take that as disrespectful. We have done so many great things over the years. So, yeah, wow.’
Bolt poses on the podium with Americans Coleman and Gatlin after the London race
Bolt was beaten to the finish line by gold medallist Gatlin and runner-up Coleman
Bolt looks around, expecting more laughter. He gets it, another round of tittering and smirking from the floor. Perhaps it’s nerves. Bolt sits back, satisfied that he has put the ingrate in her place.
Except, he has done nothing of the sort. He is supposed to be part of the solution but this just makes him seem like part of the problem. He is a clean athlete. He is salvation. He is the last barrier.
And this is how he reacts to a brave but routine question about anti-doping? This is how he reacts to an inquiry that does not seek to cast suspicion on him, or Gatlin, or Coleman but just seeks a rational, informed opinion of why the times appear to be slower.
Sure, Bolt’s being gracious in unexpected defeat and there is credit in that. But there is a bigger picture and suddenly Bolt can’t see it.
‘Justin has proven himself over and over again.’ Really? Is that all he’s got to say about a drug cheat who has been banned twice for doping offences and whose way back into the sport was paved with gold by Nike?
Nobody criticises Bolt for it because Bolt is untouchable. It’s a fair question about anti-doping. It’s actually a question that invites a positive answer but athletics has become so obsessed with circling the wagons that it sees only enemies in people who want to clean it up.
Now Gatlin takes over. He is actually more coherent than Bolt. He answers the question well. He talks about the vagaries of injury and form and how Coleman, in particular, has had a long season.
But let’s not be too generous: this is the two-time drugs cheat, Justin Gatlin, the man whose times were getting faster as he got older. It’s worth stressing that because in the aftermath of his victory, everyone suddenly got reluctant to remember the truth.
Bolt was able to swat away difficult questions during his career due to his personality
Especially Gatlin. When another journalist suggests he enjoys being the bad boy of athletics, Gatlin seems astonished that anyone might think ill of him. ‘Here’s my question to you,’ he says, bridling. ‘What do I do that makes me the bad boy? Do I talk bad about anybody? Do I give bad gestures? I don’t. I shake every athlete’s hand. I congratulate them. I tell them good luck. That don’t sound like the trait of a bad boy to me.
‘It just seems like the media wants to sensationalise and make me the bad boy because Usain is the hero and that’s fine. I know you have to have a black hat and a white hat but come on man. You guys know I keep it classy and never talk bad. I just try to stay in my lane, literally. I don’t see where the bad boy comes from.’
And you know what the really astonishing thing is? None of us say anything. Not one. Maybe that’s because the moderator can see where this is going and is trying to wrap it up. But still.
Justin, if you really don’t know the answer to ‘What do I do that makes me the bad boy?’, here goes. You failed two drugs tests, you served two drugs bans, have scarcely acknowledged you did anything wrong and took refuge in excuses about a disgruntled masseur rubbing dodgy cream into your legs. You are helping to kill your sport.
Are you getting it now? You’ll have to forgive me if shaking hands and wishing somebody good luck doesn’t seem like quite enough to earn your redemption.
Ex-drugs cheat Gatlin poses with his gold medal after beating compatriot Coleman and Bolt
Yet everywhere, Gatlin is being empowered. Michael Johnson is upbraiding Steve Cram for singling him out. People are saying it’s wrong to boo him in the stadium. People are saying there are lots of other drugs cheats, too. People on social media are saying Gatlin didn’t really cheat at all and that he was the victim of a conspiracy. Make that two conspiracies.
And so we have reached our Icarus moment. We have reached our third stage of reintegration. We have reached our equivalent of the IOC admitting Russian athletes to the Rio Olympics. We will not boo Gatlin, we will not single him out. He has our acceptance.
‘We still train every day when you guys are sitting, typing on your computers,’ Gatlin says now, emboldened. Bolt sits next to him, laughing like a drain, not aware enough to realise his sport just got sucker-punched.
The clock’s ticking down now. The moderator asks Coleman, the kid, whether he’s got anything to add. ‘No, I think they pretty much said it all,’ he said. The masterclass in how to shut down an anti-doping debate is nearly over.
There is one more question to complete it. ‘Justin,’ a journalist says, ‘do you think that some of the British media have been disrespectful to you and I want you to be honest with your answer?’
Gatlin laughs and blusters a bit. Bolt eggs him on. They yak it up together.
‘IDK, man,’ Gatlin says, grinning from ear to ear. ‘I don’t know.’
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