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Gatlin_JustinQ-Rio16.JPGJustin Gatlin, photo by PhotoRun.net

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Sunday evening when Usain Bolt was introduced prior to the start of his 100m semi-final race, the Jamaican defending champion was showered with a torrent of cheers from his adoring fans. Frankly, prior to the commencement of their competition, all Olympic athletes receive cordial greetings from the fans before the contest commences. Well, maybe not all. When American Justin Gatlin was introduced the same evening in the very next heat of the 100m semi-final, he was loudly booed. At subsequent points in the evening - after the semi results were announced, before the final, and even during the medalists' victory lap - the booing of Gatlin, who has won Olympic 100m medals of all colors, resumed with increasing intensity as the evening progressed. The serial booing was a grotesque and deplorable spectacle that sickened many, tarnished an otherwise magnificent evening of track & field, and was totally inconsistent with Olympic ideals.

At these Games, the Gatlin booing incident is sadly not an isolated event. It has been widely reported that earlier at the swimming venue, American swimmers were encouraging fans to boo Russian backstroker Yulia Efimova, an athlete with a prior drug use history who had secured an 11th hour clearance to compete in Rio. And partisan Brazilian fans actually booed France's Renaud LaVillenie - the world record holder and reigning Olympic vault champion - as he stood on the runway preparing to take his final, critical jump.

It seems incredulous that this admonition must be given. But excuse me, there is no booing at the Olympic Games. The Games themselves - a celebration of sport and humanity - is founded upon a well-grounded philosophy known as The Olympic Movement which advocates using sport not just as a physical activity but also as a means of educating people. According to the philosophy, "the good sportsmanship, sense of fair play, and respect for fellow athletes that is developed through participation in sports teaches men and women of different races, religions, and nationalities to work peacefully together in competition toward common goals. The Olympic Movement works to expand such lessons beyond the sports arena in the hope of promoting peace and a sense of brotherhood throughout the world." I don't see anything in The Olympic Movement that condones booing Olympic athletes, do you?

Before these Games, were you aware of any Olympic precedent of athlete booing? I didn't think so. Russian fans don't boo American athletes. American fans don't boo Russian athletes. Why not? Because this isn't the Ohio State / Michigan game, it's the Olympic Games. And there is a tradition of spectator decorum - developed and respected since 1896 - that expects, indeed demands, that all Olympians be appreciated and respected to aid in the further promotion of the character traits identified within The Olympic Movement.

I understand why a segment of our sport and its fans have issues with Justin Gatlin. While in his early 20's, the young sprinter committed a drug infraction - a grievous transgression to be sure, one that attacks the very core of our sport. But there is more to Gatlin's story. The governing body acted upon his violation, found him to be guilty as charged, and imposed upon him a 4 year suspension as punishment. From 2006 to 2010, Gatlin served his full 4 year sentence of enforced idleness.

The detest some hold for Gatlin stems from what they view to be the inadequacy of his punishment. "He should be banned for life, never permitted to compete again," they say. If that is the case, then the grudge held by those agitated boo birds is not with Gatlin, it is with the governing body which deemed a 4-year suspension to be the appropriate consequence for Gatlin's infraction.

Having previous won Olympic and World Championship medals while performing at the highest level of our sport, Gatlin could have easily walked away from track & field at any time after his misdeed was revealed and the suspension was levied. But he chose not to do so, deciding instead to reboot his sprinting carrier at age 28 - often an age when many dash athletes are planning their exit strategy from the sport.

In 2010, when Gatlin's suspension expired, the former University of Tennessee athlete laced up his spikes and was ready to compete once more. Early on, most in the sport - fans, athletes, influential meet directors - shunned the punished athlete. Initially treated as a pariah, Gatlin often experienced great difficulty gaining entry to even meets in the secondary track circuit. Slowly the environment changed as Gatlin's on-track performance improved and as most in sport were able to witness a humble and contrite young man who had learned from his mistake and had mended his ways. Just two years after his return to the sport, Gatlin scored bronze in the London Olympics to become the first man ever to win medals in the 100 meters eight years apart.

While a segment of the sport will never forgive Gatlin, the case for forgiveness and acceptance of the reformed athlete is best summarized by fellow sprinter, respected broadcaster, and elder dash statesman Ato Boldon. The Olympic medalist accurately notes that if any other young man in any walk of life had strayed off the path, made a mistake, was subsequently punished for his acts, yet returned to turn his life around, transform himself into a useful, contributing member of society and was experiencing success "we would be celebrating him."

If you cannot find it in your heart to acknowledge Gatlin's earned redemption and extend forgiveness to a poised and courteous athlete who - at age 34 - is still performing at the pinnacle of the sport, then at least refrain from booing him - and all athletes - especially at the Olympic Games.

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Dunaway AwardAt the 2019 annual meeting of the Track and Field Writers of America, Dave was presented with the James Dunaway Memorial Award “for track & field journalism excellence.”

2020 Mid-American Conference Indoor Track & Field Championships

Dave HunterOn February 28-29, Dave served as the Color Analyst on the live ESPN3 broadcast of this championship gathering. Coverage of this 2-day conference championship can be viewed on the ESPN app.

Dave Hunter

Dave HunterDave Hunter is a track & field journalist, announcer, and broadcaster.  Dave reports on the premier track & field gatherings around the globe, frequently serves as an arena or stadium announcer for championship events, and has undertaken foreign and domestic broadcast assignments in the sport.


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