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Somewhere, Christian Coleman must be kicking himself

·7 min read
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  • Tokyo Games
    Tokyo Games
  • Christian Coleman
    American male sprinter

Somewhere in America, for his sake hopefully within reach of a cold beer to drown his sorrows, Christian Coleman must be absolutely sick right now. After watching a little-known converted long jumper win Sunday’s wide-open Olympic 100-meter final, America’s fastest man must feel that he allowed a gift-wrapped chance at a gold medal to slip through his fingers.

On December 9, 2019, two doping control officers arrived at a gated community in Lexington, Kentucky. Finding the gate open, they entered by foot, located Coleman’s home and knocked loudly on the front door.

When nobody answered, the officers waited outside. Then, after an hour, they left, snapping a photo on their way out as a timestamp.

Coleman’s absence qualified as a missed drug test because he had previously agreed to be home from 7:15 p.m. to 8:15 p.m. that night. It was Coleman’s third missed drug test within 12 months, which by rule left the reigning 100-meter world champ at risk of a suspension from track for as long as two years.

In a hearing with investigators, Coleman admitted he was out Christmas shopping at the start of that hour window but insisted he returned home before the end of it. He recalled buying takeout Chipotle, coming home and watching the start of a "Monday Night Football" game that kicked off at 8:15. Seeing no officers, he said he then went out again to do more shopping.

An independent tribunal studied Coleman’s receipts from that night and declared his timeline “simply impossible.” Not even Coleman is fast enough, according to the tribunal, to watch the NFL game kickoff at 8:15 from home, drive to a Walmart that was 5-10 minutes away, pick up 16 items and pay for them by 8:22, all without the doping officers ever seeing him.

“It’s obvious that in fact the athlete did not go home until after making his 8:22 purchase,” the tribunal wrote in its decision. “We are comfortably satisfied that this is what happened.”

While the tribunal went out of its way to clarify that “there is no suggestion that the athlete has ever taken any prohibited substance,” it nonetheless barred Coleman from competing for the maximum of two years. Coleman managed to reduce the suspension to 18 months on appeal but the implication was the same.

The man projected to be the successor to Usain Bolt in track and field’s glamour race was no longer eligible to run at the Tokyo Olympics.

When the men's 100-meter final was contested Sunday in Tokyo, the United States' Christian Coleman was nowhere near it. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
When the men's 100-meter final was contested Sunday in Tokyo, the United States' Christian Coleman was nowhere near it. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Coleman has the speed

It’s a safe bet that Sunday’s men’s 100 final was the most painful 10 seconds of Coleman’s suspension. Coleman had to watch someone else cross the finish line first and secure a gold medal he surely feels should have been his.

Lamont Marcell Jacobs of Italy was the surprise champion in 9.80 seconds, the third time he lowered his personal best in three rounds in Tokyo. Jacobs was primarily a long jumper as recently as a few years ago. He had never cracked 10 seconds in the 100 coming into this season but took a massive leap forward at age 26. 

Just behind Jacobs on Sunday was the U.S.'s Fred Kerley, who took silver in 9.84 seconds. Canada's Andre DeGrasse claimed his second straight Olympic bronze in 9.89 seconds.

Coleman’s wind-legal personal-best time in the 100, by contrast, is 9.76 seconds, which he ran to claim first place at the 2019 World Championships. He also ran 9.85 or better four other times in 2018 and 2019.

There’s no guarantee that Coleman would have been in good form in 2021, nor is there any way of knowing how he’d have dealt with the pressure of being the favorite at the Olympics. But it’s Coleman — not Sha’Carri Richardson — who had a clearer path to capturing gold in Tokyo had they avoided suspension.

The women’s 100 boasted a historically fast field headline by a trio of Jamaicans in top form. Richardson would have needed to match her wind-legal personal best of 10.72 seconds just to edge Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and Shericka Jackson for second, let alone challenge new Olympic record holder Elaine Thompson-Herah for first.

The first men’s 100 post-Bolt missed his speed, showmanship and star power. Only four men in the field had run in the 9.8s this season prior to the Olympics. Only Trayvon Bromell had run in the 9.7s. And Bromell showed up to Tokyo nowhere close to his early-season form, barely surviving the first round of heats before crashing out of the competition in the semifinals.

The byproduct was a wide-open final in which every entrant fancied his medal chances. Less than two tenths of a second separated all six men who crossed the finish line.

Of course Coleman has no one but himself to blame for not being part of that final. He knew World Athletics rules required him to inform antidoping officials at the start of each quarter where he planned to be each day for the next three months. Athletes can update their plans, but they must identify one hour each day when they will be at a specific location.

One of Coleman’s frustrations about his final missed drug test was that he was only 10 minutes from home yet the doping control officers did not try to call him. While the tribunal initially shot that down, arguing that a call is “discretionary rather than mandatory,” a three-person appeals panel found it “reasonable” for Coleman to expect a call.

“The athlete should have been on ‘high-alert’ on that day, given the two existing whereabouts failures against him,” the Court of Arbitration for Sport panel concluded. “On the other hand, however, had the athlete been called by the Doping Control Officer, he would have been able to return to his apartment during the 60-minute window and a test would have been concluded.”

Christian Coleman could have proudly flown the American flag at the Olympic men's 100-meter final. (Photo by Ulrik Pedersen/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Christian Coleman could have proudly flown the American flag at the Olympic men's 100-meter final. (Photo by Ulrik Pedersen/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Was the suspension fair?

Coleman’s missed drug tests raise the question whether these were errors of negligence and immaturity or he had something to hide. Many in track and field believe the former, pointing to the drug tests Coleman did pass during that 12-month span and to the tribunal taking pains to emphasize that it has no evidence of PED use.

It’s Ato Boldon’s hope that this is a “real wakeup call” for Coleman. The NBC track analyst and four-time Olympic medalist likens the suspension to a child being told that a stove is hot but not believing it without first getting burnt.

“The first time that child feels the pain of that hot stove, they’ll never forget it and they’ll never touch the stove again,” Boldon told Yahoo Sports. “I feel like that’s what’s going to happen for Christian. Having to sit and watch the Olympic Games and watch somebody else get a gold medal, I think that’s what Christian needs to never get another whereabouts violation again.”

How painful has it been for Coleman to watch the Olympics without being able to run? What has he learned from this ordeal? And what does he hope to accomplish once he regains the right to compete in November?

These are relevant questions that have so far gone unanswered with Coleman keeping a low profile. He has hardly posted on social media during his suspension, nor has he spoken publicly. Yahoo Sports reached out to Coleman’s agent earlier this summer to try to set up an interview but was unsuccessful.

On Saturday afternoon, hours before the Olympic men’s 100 semifinals, Coleman offered a glimpse of his mindset when he tweeted for the first time in months. He wrote: “I appreciate all the love and positive msgs yall have sent me. They don’t go unnoticed and it means more than you guys will ever know. Next season will be worth the wait.”

If Coleman can fulfill that last vow, his legacy doesn’t have to be missed drug tests, discredited explanations or a squandered chance at Olympic gold. He’s only 25. He’ll still be in the prime of his career for at least the next two World Championships and the 2024 Olympics.

As long as Coleman learns from his mistakes, he may yet have more gold medals in his future.

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