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In this Sept. 28, 2019, photo, Christian Coleman, of the United States, celebrates winning the gold medal in the men’s 100 meter final race at the World Athletics Championships in Doha, Qatar. Coleman was banned for two years on Tuesday for missing three doping control tests. Track and field’s Athletics Integrity Unit said Coleman will be banned until May 2022, forcing him to miss the Tokyo Olympics next year. David J. Phillip/Associated Press

 

After Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson won the 100 meters at the 1988 Olympics in a world-record 9.79 seconds and subsequently was stripped of his gold medal for a positive drug test, the U.S. Olympic Committee set up an anonymous hotline to help athletes understand what was and was not considered a banned performance-enhancing substance.

FILE – In this Sept. 24, 1988 file photo, Canada’s Ben Johnson gestures, after setting a world record for the men’s 100-meter and winning a gold medal in the Seoul Summer Olympics. Johnson subsequently was stripped of his gold medal for a positive drug test Dieter Endlicher/Associated Press

Most of the callers had a different question: What exactly did Johnson take and where could they get some?

Johnson’s positive urine sample for the steroid stanozolol was supposed to herald the dawn of the anti-doping movement in sports, and in many respects it did. No-notice, out-of-competition testing was enacted the following year. Labs were commissioned to develop new detection methodology. The World Anti-Doping Agency was eventually established, under which independent national anti-doping agencies would operate using a global list of banned substances.

Deterrence, it turns out, is no match for temptation. Elusive becomes illicit.

The public heard one message from Johnson’s burst and bust in Seoul.

Athletes heard another: This stuff must work.

And here we are, 32 years later, with the latest man to crack the 9.8-second barrier having a two-year doping ban upheld this week by the Athletics Integrity Unit (AIU) of track and field’s world governing body. Pending appeal, U.S. sprinter Christian Coleman is out for the Tokyo Olympics and every other competition until May 13, 2022.

Coleman has company. He is one of 10 men in history to cover 100 meters in under 9.8 seconds with a legal tailwind. He becomes the eighth to serve a doping ban. A ninth, American Maurice Greene, never tested positive but was fingered by a known doping guru turned government informant, complete with evidence of a $10,000 wire transfer from Greene. (Greene denies it.)

The lone exception on the list? Jamaica’s Usain Bolt.

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Jamaica’s Usain Bolt is the only man to run the 100 meters in under 9.8 seconds not to be caught for doping. Anja Niedringhaus/Associated Press

 

That’s great news for Bolt, an icon in the sport. Or is it? Lance Armstrong won seven straight Tour de Frances against a peloton doped to the gills, which meant he either represented a third gender – male, female and Superhero – or was just using better juice than everyone else.

It took a few years, but we got our answer on Armstrong. Bolt remains unscathed, although the next four fastest Jamaican sprinters all tested positive during their careers. And you figure he won’t make the same mistake Armstrong did and come out of retirement, almost daring anti-doping authorities to try and catch him.

But every time another sprinter gets popped, the distance between credible and cynical gets stretched. The next guy on the list, Jamaican Steve Mullings at 9.80, tested positive twice and received a lifetime ban. The fastest “clean” time by someone not named Usain St. Leo Bolt is now 9.82, by Trinidad and Tobago’s Richard Thompson on home soil in 2014 with a 1.7 meters per second tailwind (just under the allowable 2.0).

Bolt has gone 9.58 seconds.

Coleman, 24, was the most recent hope at bridging the plausibility gap, recording the world’s fastest times in 2017, 2018 and 2019. His personal best of 9.76 seconds came in the final of the 2019 World Championships in Qatar and ranks him sixth in history. He holds the indoor 60-meter world record at 6.34 seconds.

He didn’t fail a blood or urine test, but most big names who run afoul of anti-doping authorities don’t these days. He was sanctioned for missing three out-of-competition tests within a 12-month period, which is punishable by a one- and two-year ban. The AIU chose two, saying “it is difficult to see what mitigation can be relied upon.”

Athletes subjected to Olympic-style testing must file a “whereabouts” form every three months that can be updated online, designating a one-hour window and address where doping control officers can find them each day. It is Johnson’s great legacy, after he escaped to the sleepy Caribbean island of St. Kitts in the weeks before the Seoul Olympics and had Dr. Jamie Astaphan inject him with stanozolol and a host of other muscle-bulging substances.

Some anabolic steroid cycles can clear the body in a matter of weeks, and the whereabouts protocol was introduced to prevent athletes from illicitly disappearing without fear of getting a knock at the door while they are still “glowing.”

Coleman had just been charged with a whereabouts violation the previous year, wiggling off the hook on a technicality when it was determined one of the three missed tests came a day after the 12-month period expired. Pleading ignorance to intricacies of the process, then, is not an option.

Last December, two months after he was absolved, testers showed up at his apartment in Lexington, Kentucky, during his designated window between 7:15 and 8:15 p.m. Knocked every 10 minutes. Took a time-stamped photo in front of his door at 8:21.

No Coleman. Missed test.

That was strike three within the previous 12 months and initiated the AIU’s adjudication process.

Coleman tweeted a letter declaring his innocence, claiming he was out shopping at a nearby mall and returned just in time.

“I know that I was there within the hour,” Coleman told a podcast with Flotrack last June, “because I watched the beginning of the Monday Night Football game (that kicked off at 8:15). Of course, that’s he said, she said. It’s not really much I can do. There’s no real proof of that.”

Actually …

As part of its 22-page decision upholding the two-year ban, the AIU referred to electronic receipts from Coleman at the mall. There’s one from Chipotle Mexican Grill at 7:53. There’s another for 16 items at Walmart at 8:22.

“Although the Walmart Center is relatively close to the Athlete’s residence,” the AIU report says, “it would have been simply impossible for him to purchase Chipotle at 7:53 p.m. (the store being 5-9 minutes to his residence), drive home, park the car, go into his residence, eat the Chipotle, then watch the kickoff of the football game … and thereafter go out again in his car, drive to the store and pick up 16 items at the Walmart Supercenter so as to be able to pay for them at 8:22 p.m.

“It is obvious that in fact the Athlete did not go home until after making his 8:22 p.m. purchase. We are comfortably satisfied that this is what happened.”

Coleman’s attorney said his client intends to appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Switzerland. The plea will be for leniency, for at worst a one-year ban that would allow him to lace up his spikes at the U.S. Olympic Trials next June and the Tokyo Olympics two months later.

To continue the elusive pursuit of speed.


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