AMERICAN sprinter Justin Gatlin makes a good pantomime villain. It is understandable why, in defeating the great Usain Bolt to take 100m gold at the World Championships in London on Saturday, he attracted so many boos, and subsequent negative headlines.

Gatlin has twice been suspended after testing positive for banned substances, and has become a poster boy for all that is wrong with athletics, as the sport battles multiple doping controversies.

But look a little closer at his case and the waters grow muddied. Gatlin’s first drugs violation, in 2001, was due to an amphetamine contained in medication for attention deficit disorder he had been taking since he was a boy.

A two-year ban was reduced on appeal to one.

His second, in 2006, was for the steroid testosterone.

Gatlin says this was due to a massage therapist rubbing testosterone cream onto his legs. His original eight-year ban was halved to four on appeal.

If Gatlin, who maintains he has never doped, gets booed, then why not dish out the same treatment to Bolt’s Jamaican team-mate Yohan Blake – fourth in Saturday’s final? In 2009, he was banned for three months after admitting taking a banned stimulant, but gets nowhere near the amount of bad press as Gatlin.

Are life bans the answer for even first time offenders? Probably not. That risks penalising athletes who have made a single, genuine mistake.

Longer bans, a legally-sound commitment from national federations not to select athletes with any positive tests, and public pressure on sponsors not to support them, no matter how long ago the offence, would surely be a better line of attack than mass handwringing and a few thousand catcalls aimed at an individual runner.