The great dash men of recent history have been overtaken by the specter of doping. Four of the five fastest men ever, whose records were all set in the last eight years, have tested positive for steroids or stimulants. The preceding generation of sprinters, like Ben Johnson and Carl Lewis, was no less defined by doping. Gatlin won a 2004 Olympic gold medal in the 100 meters when he was coached by Trevor Graham, a former Olympian who later received a lifetime ban from track for helping his athletes obtain the drugs they used to dope. Graham’s best runners, including the Olympic sprinters Marion Jones and Tim Montgomery, tested positive for banned substances. Gatlin’s current coach, Dennis Mitchell, also a former Olympic sprinter, was suspended after a positive test in the late 1990s. ... The pressure to seek chemical advantages in a sport where the margins of victory are so small cannot be overstated. Gatlin finished first at the United States Olympic trials earlier this month. Michael Rodgers finished two-tenths of a second behind him, in fourth place, and did not qualify for the Olympics in that event. ... An industry has popped up to certify which supplements are clean of banned substances. A no-less-vigorous underground industry of pharmacists and endocrinologists boasts to athletes and coaches of being able to increase muscle mass and endurance and speed the healing of injuries while evading ever more sophisticated tests. Anonymous surveys suggest that significantly more athletes dope, often in microdoses, than are caught.
Olympic officials and anti-doping advocates tout the ever-lengthening frontier of drug testing as a deterrent and an assurance that they will pursue athletes who dope, even years after the fact and right up to the statute of limitations. But the system for disqualifying those athletes, reshuffling results and reallocating medals is so cumbersome and prolonged that, by the time it plays out, economic and psychic payoffs for the new recipients have long since evaporated. ... "The reality is that the only people to get punished in the sport from doping [are] the clean athletes." ... Delayed medals never quite add up to full gratification for athletes. Instead, they symbolize the butterfly effect of an altered trajectory. The difference between gold and silver alone can swell to seven figures over a career. Prize money can sometimes be restored, but that's generally a pittance compared to the contractual and commercial opportunities that vanish, impossible to re-create. And there's no way to reconstitute the pomp and emotion of the moment. ... Only half of the summer sports medalists disqualified over that period had positive drug tests during Olympic competition. The other medals were stripped based on retests up to eight years after the fact, or evidence unearthed by law enforcement (such as in the BALCO investigation) or the scrubbing of a sanctioned athlete's results over a period of time, as was done in Lance Armstrong's case. WADA's statute of limitations is now 10 years.