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Doping Returns To Spotlight As Olympics Shift To Track And Field


It's hard enough to race against Usain Bolt, but American sprinting star Justin Gatlin also had to deal with booing last night in Rio as well.

That happened right before the men's 100 meters final. Gatlin finished second to Bolt. Gatlin has been hearing it from the fans because of his past. He was suspended twice for testing positive for banned drugs. Joining me from Rio is NPR's Tom Goldman. And, Tom, how did Gatlin respond to the crowd? I mean, did the booing get to him?

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: You know, it didn't, Audie. He said you got to tune that stuff out. Now, a little background - he was suspended in 2001 and then from 2006 to 2010. He admits to testing positive, but claims it wasn't intentional doping. However you define what happened to him after last night's race, he essentially said his bans were ancient history. Here he is at his post-race press conference.


JUSTIN GATLIN: My whole issue that was over a decade ago - I've been back in track and field for over six years. People who were booing - they don't even know me. You know, but when we in back in the warm-up area, I give love to De Grasse. I give love to Yohan. I give love to Usain. And we all have respect for each other, so I just like to see everyone just have the respect in the audience as well.

CORNISH: Gatlin did compete in the last Olympics in London. Did he get the same treatment then?

GOLDMAN: You know, he didn't. And it illustrates where we are now, what's happening at these games. Doping is front and center like never before because of what happened with Russia, the recent revelations of widespread state-sponsored doping in that country. Now, you may remember that right up to the start of the games, even once the games began, every Russian athlete had their doping records scrutinized, and they got the thumbs up or down whether they could compete in Rio or not. Track and field, of course, got hit the hardest. The whole Russian team except one athlete was banned.

And the environment is so toxic right now. You had swimmers last week openly going after other competitors and labeling them drug cheats and questioning whether they should be in Rio. American Lilly King, of course, was the most outspoken. She was against her Russian opponent Yulia Efimova. And King set the table for what happened to Gatlin last night when she said Gatlin shouldn't be in Rio because of his past.

CORNISH: Right. Gatlin's not the only athlete competing in Rio, though, who's been banned in the past, right?

GOLDMAN: Oh, hardly. It's reported more than 90 athletes who were registered for Rio served past suspensions for doping violations. That list includes Croatian tennis player Marin Cilic, Jamaican sprinter Yohan Blake, who finished fourth in last night's 100 meters, and, of course, swimmers Efimova and China's Sun Yang, who was also criticized by an Australian swimmer.

CORNISH: So help me understand this. I mean, athletes get labeled then they get punished, and they're back on the field. I mean, is this as disjointed as it looks?

GOLDMAN: Yes. I'm afraid so. It is, you know - so don't feel bad. It's confusing, Audie. In its initial ruling on Russian athletes, the IOC said athletes who've served doping bans in the past couldn't compete in Rio. Then a court overturned that decision in some cases. It's a mess. I will tell you that despite the booing we've been hearing at track and field and last week at swimming, most fans don't care about the doping issue or at least they don't care enough to skip going to the games and the events or they don't worry enough about it to make them suspicious as they're sitting in the stands watching.

But for those who do care, there's hope that after Rio, the people involved with the issue can figure out either a way to, you know - to make it more coherent - the rules and regulations - or put everything on the table and discuss whether the current system of trying to catch and punish performance-enhancing drug users is a losing battle and something that needs to change fundamentally.

CORNISH: So what would that change look like?

GOLDMAN: You know, some have even floated the idea of medically monitoring performance-enhancing drugs and allowing them. That idea hasn't exactly gained a lot of traction. Most shudder at the thought of legalizing the stuff, but it seems something has to happen. The status quo just isn't working.

CORNISH: That's NPR's sports correspondent Tom Goldman. He spoke to us from the Rio Olympics. Tom, thanks so much.

GOLDMAN: Sure thing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Goldman is NPR's sports correspondent. His reports can be heard throughout NPR's news programming, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and on NPR.org.

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