The Way Social Media Boost Scandals in Sport - Bolt and Gatlin

Sport can be perceived as a competitive environment when it comes to elite athletes facing each other in direct competition. Television coverage of sporting events also expands into looking at drama, sensation and gives exposure to emotion and speculation. Public opinion has become more centre of attention. An example of this ‘Sporting drama’ would be the rivalry of Justin Gatlin and Usain Bolt in athletics. A good vs evil narrative was created by the spectators of the sport, the media and even the IAAF president Sebastian Coe. The aftermath of the 2017 World championships provides the perfect case study for examining the influence of the media in sport.

During many athletics events between 2015 and 2017, media coverage had regularly focused on the rivalry between Usain Bolt and Justin Gatlin in competing for titles over 100 and 200 metres. CCN Sport (2017) describe Gatlin as ‘the sport’s most controversial drugs cheat’ which provides readers with an instantly negative portrayal of the athlete. Gatlin is an American 100m and 200m athlete and has been known as a previous World Champion and Olympic who, on two occasions, was found guilty of doping offences for performance enhancing substances. In 2001, Gatlin was found to be taking a medication to treat Attention Deficit Disorder which he was prescribed with as a child for ADHD. This medication included a banned substance on the WADA prohibited list and its presence led to a positive test for performance enhancing drugs. Despite Gatlin fighting a number of appeals, his name was never cleared but the severity of his ban was halved from four years to two. Five years later, Gatlin was given a four-year ban after testing positive for testosterone in 2006. The US Anti-Doping Agency, as the empowered governing body, adopted a firm stance enforcing their zero tolerance approach to the use of performance enhancing drugs.

A common misconception among sports fans is that branches of anti-doping regulations are a new phenomenon. Hoberman highlights that cyclists in the 1890’s were given caffeine boosts by some coaches to enhance performance. Any athletes who breach WADA rules come under intense scrutiny from fans and media however, it could be argued that Justin Gatlin is the most high-profile case and received an unfair amount of criticism. This may be because he was able to make a very successful comeback which is rare.

Newspapers accused Gatlin of being a two-time drug cheat without providing context or revealing all the correct information. This allows them to paint Gatlin as a villain in the sport. Before Bolt was the face of athletics, Gatlin was presented in headlines as inspiring and understood to be accepted in the sport. In contrast to this, the London stadium crowd began booing Gatlin after his win at the World Championships 2017. Some people may say that this cast athletics in a negative light to the viewing public and younger athletes. Yet in 2004, when Gatlin became Olympic champion, it was mentioned that spectators were ‘dancing and singing in the stands’. In comparison to 2017, the public perception of Gatlin had changed significantly in the eyes of the sporting community.

Out of respect for Bolt, Gatlin knelt down to him, ultimately acknowledging his status as the greatest sprinter of all time and to honour him for his achievements at his last major championships. This perception is supported by Ghildiyal who explored sport psychology and commented on respecting your own opponents and not letting anything become overwhelming.

The IAAF President, Sebastian Coe, was very critical and quoted that Gatlin winning the 2017 World Championships 100m final was ‘not the perfect script’. It was thought that with Bolt being the face of athletics, it would be more desirable for him to win and represent the sport of athletics. In relation to this, Bolt motivates, entertains and inspires all with his known character with his signature victory move, ‘To Di World’ pose. This is also promoted through television and broadcasting coverage, where Bolt himself is used to advertise his sponsor, PUMA. Furthermore, Bolt was also engaging and promoting his tagline as the fastest man in the Virgin Media television advert in 2016. This allowed Bolt to become a household name. In addition, Bolt creates high commercial value.

Despite Bolt retiring from athletics 2017, he has been given opportunities to continue presenting himself worldwide. Bolt bought fun, enjoyment and interest in the Soccer Aid 2019. The crowd roared with excitement when he scored and bought the stadium alive. Bolt was most likely chosen for SoccerAid because he is an intriguing person with charisma and character. When it comes to entertaining an audience, he knows how to get an audience up on their feet.

Social media can provide the opportunity for sports fans to interact online with their sporting heroes. Communication is constantly changing and evolving with a wide variety of technology available. On twitter, Bolt’s level of influence on sports fans is considerable, owing to his large number of followers. People may choose to follow athletes to discover private news or information. Twitter provides the option for people to be independent to have the free will to follow who they want. Those with more followers are often perceived as having a better reputation in comparison to someone with a lesser number of followers. Information can be transformative and shared at the desired time an athlete chooses and gives the followers/fans the ability to comment and have a voice. The table below shows an opinionated tweet from Paula Radcliffe.

In summary, the power of social media can have a significant impact on how athletes interact with fans. Many athletes rely on the media to help them create a sustainable career and allow fans to get to know them on a more personal level. That aside, you could say that ‘all publicity is good publicity’. In Gatlin’s scenario, he was able to become a well-known name globally. The power of traditional media can spread worldwide and doesn’t necessarily include all the correct information. When various media is published globally, readers choose what they do and don’t want to believe.This means people credit what they read regardless of how false or deceptive information may be.

07 July 2022
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