News that sportswear giant Nike has decided to offer Justin Gatlin – a man with two doping offences on his CV – a sponsorship deal has caused consternation in the athletics world.
Gatlin, who was banned in 2001 after testing positive for amphetamines and again in 2006 for testosterone, was previously sponsored by Nike but was dropped after his second ban, which was reduced on appeal from eight to four years in return for him helping the authorities. The American sprinter returned to the track in 2010 and has never acknowledged his guilt and continues to divide opinion, with German thrower Robert Harting even demanding his name was removed from the most recent IAAF Athlete of the Year list if Gatlin’s remained on it.
In 2014, Gatlin was the undisputed number one in the 100m and 200m as he set new lifetime bests at the age of 32. However, there was no Usain Bolt or Yohan Blake to contend with and his fellow USA sprinter Tyson Gay was also serving a ban.
Gatlin’s doping cases are a stark contrast to tennis player Wayne Odensik’s recent 15-year ban after he, like Gatlin, tested positive for the second time in his career forcing him to retire. Odensik served a ban between 2010 and 2012 when human growth hormone was found in his luggage at a tournament. He then tested positive for several substances, including steroids, in December and January 2014/15. His ban is the longest in tennis.
As news of Gatlin’s deal filtered through, many athletes took to social media to voice their concern. Paula Radcliffe led the way saying: “I am very disappointed to hear this news. I don’t believe it truly reflects the core values of the NIKE that I am proud to represent” on Twitter. Former GB sprinter Darren Campbell called the sponsorship “disgusting” on BBC Radio Five and posed the question:” How many young athletes could the money he was being paid by Nike fund?” Fellow ex-sprinters Jason Gardener and Marlon Devonish also waded in to the discussion calling it a “kick in the teeth to the 99% of guys who are clean.”
Jenny Meadows, who has suffered more than most at the hands of drug cheats, also added: “Gatlin gets Nike deal having served 2 doping bans when clean athletes lead indoor world rankings & have no funding or sponsorship! Justice?” on her Twitter feed.
Nike also announced it had dropped British Athlete of the Year Jo Pavey despite her having a fantastic year in 2014 where she won medals at major championships at the age of 40. She had been with the company for 18 years and is seen as an inspirational figure, especially to mums and the over forties.
Some athletes and journalists have gone further than Meadows and Radcliffe by suggesting Gatlin should not even be in the sport, and his new deal threatens athletics. Many are worried he may be the dominant force in sprinting this and next year when there are World Championship and Olympic titles at stake.
Nike, it seems, may consider the chance to be associated with a possible gold medallist as a chance worth talking. So far the manufacturer has only confirmed it has agreed a deal with Gatlin but has not released any other details.
The move may yet backfire as many athletics fans and those not sponsored by the firm have said they will boycott the brand and have urged consumers to do the same. Nike’s rivals may yet be poised to benefit from the backlash.