The news that came six months ago seemed all too familiar: A champion athlete tests positive for a performance-enhancing drug. The athlete immediately professes his innocence and vows to clear his name. And one day, sprinter Justin Gatlin perhaps will be remembered as nothing more than another cheat busted in the steroid era.
But an examination of Gatlin's case finds nothing routine. What emerges is a convoluted web of poorly fitting pieces of evidence that lead to no clear conclusions. It's a tale that includes an unlikely rules violator, a renegade coach, a masseur, an assault, private investigators and a strange-looking tube of cream.
The only thing not in dispute is this: All parties agree that Gatlin did fail a drug test. A possible punishment is an eight-year suspension from the sport.
Gatlin, 24, arrived in Lawrence for the Kansas Relays in April, at the forefront of a new generation of competitors who pledged to clean up the sport by proving they could win without cheating.
The Kansas Relays is a second-tier track event used primarily by American athletes as a tuneup for the European summer circuit. Gatlin anchored a winning relay, then in May traveled to Qatar, where he equaled the 100-meter world record of 9.77 seconds. It set the stage for a showdown with co-record holder Asafa Powell of Jamaica to see who was the fastest man on Earth.
They never got to race.
On June 15, Gatlin was informed that a urine sample taken from him in Kansas had shown evidence of a steroid. Like many before him, Gatlin said he was innocent. Except here the story took its first strange turn: Gatlin and his lawyers didn't dispute the test result. They said someone had sneaked a steroid into Gatlin's system.
The case has attracted the attention of federal investigators, according to several sources, and the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) has allowed an unusual extension to give Gatlin's lawyers time to assemble their client's defense.
The idea that Gatlin was doped without his knowledge has been dismissed by some as implausible and a smokescreen. Others, however, have raised questions about the chain of events in Kansas that illuminate the more sordid side of big-time track and field.
"I would find it really hard to believe" that Gatlin was doped unknowingly, said Peter Stubbs, an agent who represents more than a dozen track and field athletes but not Gatlin. "On the flip side, I believe pretty strongly that Justin is a clean athlete ... and there's a problem here somewhere."
Gatlin, who won three medals at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece, tested negative on at least six other occasions this year, according to USADA and the IAAF, the world track and field governing body.
When Gatlin, who would not comment publicly for this article, learned of the positive result for testosterone or its precursors, his supporters at first looked with suspicion at Trevor Graham, his North Carolina-based coach. Graham gained fame for giving USADA a steroid-filled syringe in 2003 that led to the Bay Area Laboratory Cooperative (BALCO) sports doping case. The BALCO probe has ensnared more than a dozen athletes, among them track and field champion Marion Jones and baseball slugger Barry Bonds.
But Graham, who like Gatlin was under contract with Nike before Gatlin's positive test, also has coached more than a half-dozen athletes charged with doping violations. In November, he was indicted on federal charges of lying to investigators in the BALCO probe and faces a possible 15 years in prison.
Graham denied any involvement in doping Gatlin. A day after Gatlin announced the positive test result, however, Graham claimed he knew who was responsible. "We know who the person is who actually did this," Graham said. "... We hope this individual has the guts to come forward and say he did it."
In subsequent interviews, Graham pointed to Chris Whetstine, a massage therapist who Graham said lathered the runner's legs with what he believes was a steroid-based cream at the race in Kansas. Graham said he believed Whetstine had sabotaged Gatlin in an act of vengeance, possibly over a months-old financial dispute between the two or as part of a deeper plot to get back at Graham for his role in setting off the BALCO probe.
If there was a conspiracy, the trail had seemingly gone cold. Except for one interesting fact: The results of the lab report on Gatlin's urine sample, which was obtained by The Washington Post, were consistent with the heavy application of the type of steroid cream that Graham said he saw Whetstine rub on Gatlin, according to two chemists who reviewed the results. The lab report showed the presence of small amounts of synthetic testosterone precursors in Gatlin's urine. Both chemists added that it was impossible to state conclusively that the cream was the source.
The chemists, who have no connection to Gatlin or his legal team, spoke on condition of anonymity because they did not want to be publicly associated with the case.
One of the chemists said Gatlin would have been foolish to have allowed himself to be massaged with the product Graham said Whetstine was using - and that Graham would have been foolish to have sanctioned its use on his star sprinter, for that matter - because its active ingredient was Dehydroepiandrosterone, also known as DHEA.
DHEA is not known to enhance athletic performance. On top of that, according to specialists in the field, it is easily detected.
"The only reason someone would give DHEA to an athlete," one of the chemists said in an e-mail, "would be to assure a positive test."
Elite track and field athletes are massaged nearly every day during the competitive season, often with anti-inflammatory creams. Massage therapists are considered so vital to helping athletes recover that some shoe and management companies sign them to contracts and pay for them to travel with their athletes.
Gatlin made regular visits to a personal massage therapist during the winters in Raleigh, N.C., and in the spring and summer took advantage of the services of Whetstine, who was under contract with Nike and has worked with Nike-sponsored athletes since at least 1998.
Whetstine arrived in Raleigh in late March, Graham said, and was the only one who massaged Gatlin before the Kansas Relays. In the days leading to the April 22 drug test, Whetstine massaged Gatlin two or three times, Graham, a track official and athletes from Gatlin's group recalled.
Cedric Walker, USA Track and Field's former relay program manager, said he observed Whetstine working on sprinter Shawn Crawford and Gatlin after a training session in Lawrence. Walker said he noticed that after Whetstine finished with Crawford he reached in his bag for a different cream to rub on Gatlin.
"All I saw was the massage therapist go into a bag and bring out something else," Walker said. "He rubbed something else on Justin. ... It was right there in front of me. It wasn't what he used on Shawn."
Whetstine massaged Gatlin the day before the race, applying cream so heavily it seeped through his warmup pants, Graham said. After Gatlin competed, Whetstine approached him as he was heading to the drug-testing station and ushered him to his table underneath the stadium scoreboard for another massage, Graham said. There, Graham said, Whetstine applied a cream to Gatlin's inner thighs and behind his knees. Graham said he didn't see what was written on the tube, though he remembered it had a pink squiggle on it.
Graham said he asked Whetstine what was in the tube and that Whetstine refused to tell him, stuffing it into his pocket. As Graham tried to grab the tube, Graham recalled, Gatlin looked behind him, apparently unclear what the fuss was about, and said, "Let him do his job, man!"
Graham said he dropped the matter, not wanting to overreact. But after he learned Gatlin had tested positive, he said, he searched the Internet for testosterone creams until he found a photo that looked like the one he had seen being used by Whetstine. The pink squiggle, he said, was the letter S for Sarati Laboratories. The cream, Deep Hydrating Essential Aloe Cream by Sarati, contains DHEA and is marketed to menopausal women as an alternative to traditional hormone therapy.
Whetstine declined to comment for this story. His attorney, Rick Roseta, issued an "absolute, vehement denial" of Graham's allegations. Said Roseta: "I think probably (Whetstine's) position is borne out by the recent indictment (of Graham) by a federal grand jury, which seems to indicate he has a problem with the truth."
Whetstine previously worked on several athletes sanctioned in the BALCO case, including Kelli White and Chryste Gaines. Their coach, Remi Korchemny, pleaded guilty to misbranding a prescription drug as a result of the probe.
"Chris is a very honest and a very good guy," Korchemny said of the massage therapist. "I doubt he would ever commit anything related to unprofessional behavior."
In 2003, however, Whetstine was disciplined by the Oregon Board of Massage Therapists for "unprofessional conduct that could endanger the health or safety of a client or the public," according to the settlement order. The board declined to reveal the details of the case.
'Everything comes back'
After blaming Whetstine, Graham at first theorized that Whetstine was angry because Gatlin refused to give him a bonus on top of what Nike paid him for his work the previous year. The dispute, Graham said, was followed by unexplained absences by Whetstine and caused his track group to advertise for another therapist.
Later, Graham speculated that he - not Gatlin - might have been the target because of anger in the track and field world surrounding his decision to send the syringe filled with steroids to USADA in 2003.
"He sold all of us for the benefit of himself," Korchemny said of Graham and his role in the BALCO case. But "everything comes back. It's like a boomerang. ... He threw it against us, but it will hit him."
Those around Gatlin say he didn't seem to understand how poorly Graham was perceived outside his camp of runners. Citing the success he had achieved under Graham and their friendship dating from his departure after two years from the University of Tennessee in 2002, Gatlin rejected the advice of his agent, former track star Renaldo Nehemiah, who suggested after the Athens Olympics that he find another coach.
But Gatlin's supporters say Gatlin did understand the implications of a positive drug test. A stimulant in his attention-deficit disorder medicine had triggered a positive in 2001. Though anti-doping officials ruled he did not intend to cheat in that instance, the violation remained on his record. Another positive could bring a lifetime ban.
Gatlin was known to order room service when traveling to avoid the possibility of ingesting contaminated food. He kept his luggage and sports bags locked and avoided cold and flu medication, for fear they could contain banned substances.
A month after Gatlin's positive test result was announced, Nike suspended Gatlin's contract and fired Graham. It has taken no public action and made no comment regarding Whetstine.
Though Gatlin's case could go to arbitration with USADA as early as next month, his legal strategy remains a mystery. USADA rules provide for the possibility of reduced sanctions for athletes who provide information against their coaches or other sources of drugs, but Gatlin and his attorneys have not revealed what he will tell the panel.
Some of Gatlin's supporters say they question whether the evidence points to Graham. Others say the massage therapist theory - even if true - would be difficult to prove.
Those who know Gatlin well, however, agree on this: He is innocent.
"I have no doubt in my mind he didn't do anything," said Robin Beamon, the ex-wife of legendary long jumper Bob Beamon and a friend of Gatlin's who is involved in youth track and field in Miami. "It just goes against everything this kids stands for. Once you wade through all the craziness, what did he stand to lose or gain? It was the Kansas Relays. He was ... at the top of the world."