RIO DE JANEIRO — Michael Johnson didn’t take “any type of medication” during his days as an American Olympic sprinter. Just to be sure he hadn’t put something in his body that would have resulted in a doping violation, even if by accident.
So he doesn’t have much sympathy for the “but I didn’t know what I was taking!” excuses that emerge from countless doping violations in his and other sports.
“I do buy that people didn’t know what they were putting into their body, but it’s their body, and they’re responsible. It’s the first thing you learn in international sport. So I buy it, but it’s not an excuse,” said Johnson, in Rio to promote the Los Angeles 2024 Summer Olympics bid. “You tell me you didn’t know … that’s not an argument in any other part of life. If you’re speeding, you can’t be like ‘officer, I didn’t know the speed limit.’ You’re still getting that ticket.”
What Johnson wants isn’t a speeding ticket for athletes. He wants their license revoked.
Johnson supports a minimum four-year ban, including the loss of an Olympics, for a first doping violation and a lifetime ban for a second violation.
“They should have a minimum four-year ban, and have to miss an Olympic Games. Four years is a significant amount of time,” said Johnson. “I would like to see a lifetime ban if you have a second infraction. And I don’t care how minor the first one is: If you cheated, you cheated. Yeah, there are going to be accidents, but you have to have tough rules in these situations. Some people are going to end up making a minor infraction and miss four years.”
Strike two, and you’re out.
Imagine if those standards were in place at Rio 2016. There would be no Yulia Efimova of Russia, turning the Rio swimming competition into a wet-and-Cold War with American swimmers openly mocking her doping violations and fans booing her.
However, the latter athletes have put Johnson in an awkward position. He’s been an outspoken critic of the backlash against Gatlin, the American sprinter who has returned from an eight-year ban to run in Rio. Gatlin was suspended for two years in 2001, but pled that the failed test was due to medication he had taken since childhood. His eight-year ban was, according to Gatlin, the fault of his trainer using a testosterone-based cream on him.
By the Michael Johnson standard, Justin Gatlin would not be in the Rio Olympics.
But Michael Johnson isn’t the IOC, nor is he WADA. So he feels the portrayal of Gatlin as a villain has been unfair, given the rules that govern his sport.
“Not to defend what he did, but Gatlin doesn’t make the rules,” he told the Telegraph (UK) last week.
Last year, Johnson said via the Daily Mail: “I don’t know if it’s fair to someone who has done everything they were supposed to do and the sport has said, ‘Hey, you gotta sit out for a few years.’ And then when you sit out for a few years and come back, I don’t know if it’s fair to pummel that person and say, ‘You shouldn’t be here.’ You can’t expect a person to voluntarily go away if they have the right to run.”
So when it comes to doping, Johnson isn’t exactly “love the sinner, hate the sin.” It’s more like ‘don’t give the sinner a pass for that sin you hate, but remember who’s determining the severity of his penance.’
In other words, Justin Gatlin wouldn’t be an issue at the Rio 2016 Games if the hammer had been dropped on him and other doping violators through more draconian rules, instead of the contradictory and opaque jumble that are the current IOC standards.
“I would love to see what happens in sport mirror what happens in society. We don’t lock people up forever once they’ve done something wrong. But we do make them serve their time. We do make them serve their punishment. I would like to see that same situation in sports, where athletes have to serve some significant time based on the damage they’ve done to the sport,” said Johnson.
The four-time gold medalist believes that “damage” is the right word. Not tarnish, not blemish – damage. And that damage should be punished retroactively, too, as Johnson supports stripping away medals from athletes who have been found, through tests years later, to have used banned substances.
“It’s the best we can do, but the shame of that is when some athlete who was clean, who was fourth place, never got a medal. Never got a chance to get on the podium. Missed out on prize money. Missed out on the chance to be able to have their whole country seeing them on the podium. That’s a moment you never get back,” he said.
“That’s why it’s so important to not only focus on retroactive punishment, but deterring people from the very beginning. Not because of the people who cheat, but because of the people who are clean. We have to protect them.”
Johnson isn’t naïve. He believes no sport, Olympic or otherwise, will be clean. “People are always going to try to cheat. That’s why sports is a microcosm of society,” he said.
But he does believe that harsher penalties could be a deterrent, a way to reduce doping in an Olympics that can’t seem to emerge from its shadow. “No sport’s going to be 100 percent clean. We know that. But the bigger point is that people have gotten away with it,” he said.
Listen to Yahoo Sports’ Greg Wyshynski podcast from Rio on GRANDSTANDING, featuring beach volleyball’s April Ross: