Is it ever okay to root for sports cheaters? – For The Win
On Sunday, the world’s greatest sprinter, Usain Bolt, overcame his worst season to defeat this year’s fastest man, American Justin Gatlin, in the track world championships in Beijing. It continued Bolt’s six-race winning streak in the 100 and 200 at the two major international meets — world and the Olympics — a streak that likely would have been at 16 had Bolt not false started in the 100 at the 2011 worlds.
But with it’s 7:45 a.m. ET start, seven-hour television tape delay and the fact that track gets as much attention in non-Olympic years as preseason hockey, the race barely made a blip in the United States. It should have. It featured track’s greatest athlete against one of it’s most reviled in Gatlin, who has twice been suspended for doping, including a 2006 violation that led to a four-year ban. But he’s back and faster than ever, leading to the natural question: Is it okay to root for a cheater?
The answer? It’s complicated. Not all cheats are built the same. Doping is worse than throwing a spitball which is worse than deflating footballs which is worse than putting a little sunscreen on the ball when you pitch it. Still, an advantage, any advantage, is cheating. It’s a zero-sum game. There’s no such thing as halfway-cheaters.
It’s the dopers who deserve, and receive, the vilification. Lance Armstrong was made the devil incarnate after his doping was revealed, not because of the doping (who cares about cyclists?) but because of his lying. Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens are being blackballed from the Hall of Fame. Marion Jones, once considered America’s greatest female athlete, is now nothing but a footnote. The only sport that basically ignores PED users is football, because it’s figured you’re supposed to be big and strong and unnaturally filled with testosterone.
But why is Clemens thought of as the poster boy for pitching PEDs yet his old teammate Andy Pettite gets off scot free? It’s partially because Clemens is the bigger name and it’s partially because of contrition. Nobody really cares if Brady deflated footballs. They care if he lied about it. The lying is what brought down Lance Armstrong so hard that the phenomenal works he did with cancer patients and research was basically ruined, all because he was keeping up with the cycling Joneses.
Gatlin’s case is different, but no easier to quantify. He got caught cheating even though he’s far from the only athlete in Olympic sports to do so. Can you really hold it against someone who merely got caught, while others who may have been doing the same exact thing somehow passed their test to appear clean?
Americans will have a choice to make on that question in the next year when Gatlin has a showdown with Bolt at the 2016 Summer Games in Rio. Normally, Americans would be behind the red, white and blue — we love to wrap ourselves in the flag during the Olympics. But given Bolt’s prominence in the sport and Gatlin’s history, it might be the rare Olympic event in which the majority of the U.S. is rooting against the flag.
Gatlin served his time and hasn’t been caught again, so he merits support if you want to give it to him. He won’t get mine and it only partially has to do with elevated testosterone levels. Rooting for Usain Bolt is like rooting for Michael Jordan in his prime. History outweighs nationality and clean always beats dirty. Just because cheaters deserve a second chance doesn’t mean you have to root for them.