Usain St Leo Bolt, aged 31 is the fastest human in the world. The Jamaican sprinter holds the world records for the 100m and 200m and is arguably one of the greatest athletes of all time. On Saturday 5th August millions tuned in to watch the men’s 100m final in the World Athletics Championship, hoping to see a final win prior to his retirement. But Justin Gatlin had other ideas. The 35 year old American stormed to victory, followed by his American teammate Christian Coleman – leaving a bemused Bolt to take Bronze – and a very angry audience.

In sport – the best man wins though, right? Unfortunately not, and this is why Saturday’s result was such a bitter pill to swallow. Mention ‘doping in athletics’ in conversation and it leads to very lively debate, but what is it and what exactly does it mean?

In 1912 the International Amateur Athletic Federation was founded changing to ‘The International Association of Athletics Federations’ (IAAF) in 2001. It is the governing body of the athletic competition programme and is established for an indefinite period with legal status as an association under the laws of Monaco (Act N°1.355 of 23 December 2008). The IAAF has a constitution, which contains a host of rules and regulations including the use of prohibited substances which enhance performance – more commonly known as ‘doping’ (Rule 32).

Amongst the IAAF constitution is the consequences of breaching such rules.  As per Rule 33 the burden of proof lies with the IAAF to prove, to a standard greater than a mere balance of probability but less than proof beyond a reasonable doubt that a rule has been violated and have rules setting out periods of ineligibility to compete, effectively a ban, following the use of prohibited substances. For multiple violations the consequences are more severe and unless certain conditions are fulfilled a third anti-doping rule violation will always result in a lifetime ban. Justin Gatlin has had two bans, meaning that his win on Saturday was overshadowed by his past, to the extent that the usually welcoming London crowd booed him as he finished and subsequently accepted his medal.

Were the crowd being overly harsh?  The actual circumstances of Gatlin’s bans are less well known. The first ban, issued in 2001, was after Gatlin tested positive for amphetamine, resulting in a two year ban. This was reduced to one year following an appeal and investigations that revealed that the drug was contained in medication that Gatlin had been taking for the medical condition of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Therefore, this ban is arguably not as straightforward as first seems.

However, any sympathy for Gatlin was lost when in 2006 the United States Anti-Doping Agency stated that Gatlin had tested positive for testosterone, another prohibited substance.  His team claimed that it was due to testosterone cream being rubbed into the athlete by a sports masseuse – however this story was never corroborated by evidence. Gatlin received an initial eight year ban, reduced to four years on appeal. Whereas the first ban arguably had mitigating circumstances, the second ban cemented Gatlin’s reputation for being a doper.

What also needs to be considered is the long term effect of the use of anabolic sterioids. Research has suggested that exposure to steroids can have long lasting beneficial effect on the performance of athletes. This would certainly explain how a 35 year old athlete who has not competed for five years of his career due to bans, may still be able to beat the fastest man in the world who is four years his junior.

So is this fair and more importantly should the rules be changed? Some would argue that after a first ban an athlete should never be eligible to compete again. However, if there are mitigating or exceptional circumstances resulting in a ban, this should be taken into consideration and this could be overly harsh. However, there seems to be no compelling argument as to why the lifetime ban should not come into effect after a second violation and that allowing an athlete to return after a second violation is far too lenient. Even if mitigating circumstances exist for the first offence surely this should make athletes and their teams more vigilant, so they should never get into a situation where they are tested positive again? Further, it needs to be considered whether the ban should be reflective of the substance taken and how this may impact on performance longer term.

Certainly, if this had been the case then the result on Saturday would have been very different.