How can the world's biggest sports brand endorse a drug cheat?
This is the question currently circulating the world of athletics as Nike announces their sponsorship of Justin Gatlin.
For those of you not in the know, Mr Gatlin won the Olympic gold medal over the 100m in Athens back in 2004. In 2006 he was banned for 8 years when he tested positive for a banned substance for the second time in his career (the first was back in 2001 when he tested positive for amphetamines - something that he attributed to medication for his ADD).
Gatlin's ban was later reduced to 4 years, and he returned to competition in 2010.
Pre Gatlin's second ban, the sprint races had been a different affair from those we see today. The start line was full of athletes looking like they were about to go to war with physics; grunting, eyes popping, pure aggression seeping out of every pore. Hundreds, sometimes thousandths of a second would separate the winner from the rest of the pack and they would celebrate a victory like they had just knocked out Mike Tyson.
Usain Bolt changed everything. His pre-race goofy posing was followed by a victory of meters and celebrating like it was 12:01 am on New Year's Day. The rest of the pack followed suit and soon the start line of a 100m race was more like a session in a wedding reception photo booth than gladiators going to war.
But Gatlin has held onto his old school ways, a warrior amongst clowns. His progress since his return has been steady, gradually working his way up the ranks of the fastest men in the world. He won a bronze over the 100m at London 2012 and silver at the following years World Championships. But Bolt's position at the front of the pack has seemed untouchable.
Until last year.
Usain had a tricky 2014. Injuries ruled out much of his season and the few performances he had were not classic Bolt.
Gatlin however had a stormer of a season. He set personal bests of 9.77 in the 100m (he'd previously run this time in 2006 but it was annulled due to his drugs ban) and 19.68 over the 200m. These were world leading times, and even more impressive as, at 32, no one as old has even run as fast.
Much of response to Nike's sponsorship deal with Gatlin has focused on him as a role model. There's the feeling in the athletics community that he should not be competing after serving two doping bans, let alone being supported by such a company. Some also find it hard to believe that his performances are 'clean' when he's posting such spectacular results at his age. Indeed the question has been raised about the long term effects of doping and their effect on the body for many years after.
So should Nike, the worlds biggest sports company, be endorsing this controversial figure? He's a cheat.
My answer is, yes.
It's not the place of a sports company to inflict a ban on an athlete. That's down to the governing body of the sport. If the IAAF have cleared Gatlin to compete then he should have the same opportunities as anyone else who is on that start line.
Those who disagree with their decision should stop buying their products. For years I've worn Nike shoes, when I was a competitive athlete I always bought Nike spikes. I don't think Gatlin is someone we should hold up as a role model. Not at all. But will Nike's support of him mean I'll be reaching for a pair of Puma's next time I'm in Footlocker.... Probably not.
Gatlin comes with a lot of baggage, but he's a valuable asset. Every sports manufacturer wants their kit on the fastest men on the planet. It's easy to see the impact that Bolt's relationship with Puma has had. 10 years ago the only people who wore Puma spikes at the track were the ones whose mums made them shop at the outlet centre where they were the only ones available. Today, half of the kids who are at sprint practice are sporting Bolt's favoured footwear. Bolt is tied into a multi-year multi-million dollar contract with Puma. A rival brand then has the option to sponsor an athlete who is unlikely to win the Olympic 100m title. But Gatlin is the best of the rest, and by quite some way, and Nike's sponsorship of him has recognised this.
He proved last year that he's a dominant force in the sprints when Bolt is absent. This year he needs to show that he can perform as well with Bolt back in the game. If anyone is going to ruin Bolt's fairy tale career, it's Gatlin, and Nike want to be on his feet if it happens.