Atlanta chiropractor at heart of doping scandal

When U.S. sprinter Tyson Gay failed three drug tests last year, it created a stir in track and field. It defied logic that an athlete would repeatedly take anything that would put him in jeopardy.

Now the trail of the latest sports doping scandal leads to the modest storefront office of a chiropractor in Midtown Atlanta.

Clayton Gibson III has been cited in published reports and a lawsuit as supplying a product that caused Gay to fail the tests and receive a one-year ban from the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. The ban, announced May 2, required Gay to return the silver medal he won as part of the U.S. 4 x 100-meter relay team at the London Olympics in 2012.

The unfolding saga is yet another reminder of how elite athletes and their coaches often place their trust in anyone they think will provide an edge, no matter the credentials.

But it also has a broader implication — showing how chiropractors can aggressively market themselves and avoid action by regulators.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found that Gibson has for years promoted himself through various websites and publications as a “sports physician” even though he has no medical degree. In some forums, he stated that he was a chiropractor, but in others he did not.

In Georgia, state law does not allow chiropractors to use the term “physician” in their advertising.

Gibson’s promotion of dietary supplements as part of his practice also has long caused some to raise questions. While it’s not illegal for chiropractors to dispense supplements, the practice is widely seen as one that can lead to problems because the products can enter the market without being tested for safety and purity.

“You are legally responsible for everything you recommend and dispense,” said Alan Bragman, an Atlanta chiropractor who regularly serves as an expert witness in lawsuits in which chiropractors are sued.

According to the website ProPublica, Gay tested positive after using a purported anti-aging cream Gibson provided that contained testosterone and other substances banned for Olympic athletes. Gay has cooperated with the USADA and told investigators that his coach, Jon Drummond, encouraged him to use Gibson’s products, the investigative journalism website reported.

A lawsuit filed by Drummond acknowledges that he and Gay met with Gibson in 2012 and claims the chiropractor offered creams that referred to banned substances on their labels. But in his suit, the coach, himself a former Olympic sprinter, says he recommended that Gay not use the products.

Gibson did not respond to repeated interview requests from the AJC. During a brief phone conversation, he declined to answer questions about Gay.

Late Friday, responding by email to questions from the AJC, Gibson’s attorney, Mark Trigg, said his client denies providing Gay with any products containing substances prohibited by the USADA. Gibson’s practice only involves food- and plant-based products, herbals and homeopathic products, none of which contain harmful, illegal or banned substances, Trigg wrote.

“Dr. Gibson has a lengthy and successful record of providing effective and appropriate care for patients without incident,” the lawyer’s email said. “In fact, in over 14 years of practice, his care has never been connected to a positive drug test by any governing sports authority.”

Gibson, 41, is a native of Columbus who played football at Furman University, lettering four years as a linebacker and defensive end in the early 1990s. He has been licensed as a chiropractor in Georgia since 1999.

He also has worked as a personal trainer, and in a dozen years he has morphed from leading fitness classes at the Buckhead YMCA to supervising the workouts of NFL players and other professional athletes, many of whom have praised him publicly.

The late fighter Vernon Forrest, interviewed by Channel 5 after reclaiming the WBC light middleweight title in 2008 , went out of his way to say how Gibson had helped him prepare.

“This nutritional plan that I had was fantastic,” Forrest said.

But some have backed away from Gibson because of his use of supplements and other concerns.

Roald Bradstock, a former British Olympian who lives in Atlanta, said Gibson offered him supplements when he visited the chiropractor’s office for an adjustment. Bradstock said he declined the offer because he has long believed athletes should be wary of such products.

“I’ve been training a long time,” said Bradstock, a javelin thrower who competed in the 1984 and 1988 Olympics and remained active in the event through 2012. “I’m very much against people pushing supplements.”

`Sports physician’

In examining Gibson’s background, the AJC found he has repeatedly referred to himself as a physician, a designation that chiropractors in Georgia may not use.

In the 2008 edition of Who’s Who for Black Doctors in Atlanta, Gibson referred to himself as a “personal sports physician” without noting that he is a chiropractor. In a blurb for a book, he referred to himself in similar terms.

Gibson is certified as a chiropractic sports physician by the American Chiropractic Board of Sports Physicians. State law allows chiropractors who hold certifications to advertise them in that context, but not in a way that is “false, misleading, deceptive or confusing.”

Bragman said it may be difficult to determine when those with that designation have crossed the line. “It’s very gray,” he said. “The people who would ultimately have to make that decision are the board of examiners.”

Trigg, in his email, said Gibson always states that he is a board-certified chiropractic sports physician and is unaware of any instance in which he has failed to represent himself as a chiropractor. The attorney added that a credentialing organization for hospitals and health care organizations recognizes chiropractors as physicians.

Gibson also has portrayed himself online as the “team doctor and performance consultant” for Westlake High School. He worked with the football program at the Fulton County school about six years ago, but his role was more as an athletic trainer, according to two coaches there at the time.

“He’d come in and help us tape (football players),” said Dallas Allen, the school’s head football coach from 1994 to 2008. “If a kid got hurt during a game, he’d look and say, `Coach, this kid might need to go see a doctor’ or `Coach, I don’t think this kid should go back in.’ He didn’t make any diagnoses.”

Trigg said Gibson was the school’s chiropractic sports physician, providing “wellness and pain relief” in addition to other services.

The Georgia Board of Chiropractic Examiners has taken no public disciplinary action against Gibson. It could not be determined whether he has ever been the subject of a complaint because complaints aren’t public unless they result in sanctions.

The board’s president, Karen Mathiak, did not respond to repeated interview requests from the AJC.

Humble beginnings

At the Buckhead YMCA, Gibson was on the wellness staff, a job that meant he trained anyone with a membership.

“You would sign up for orientation to the machines and just an introductory session, and that would have been Clayton,” said Scott Doll, who was then the facility’s executive director.

Gibson later worked at a Marietta sports training facility operated by Tony Villani, a personal trainer for NFL players.

Villani said he brought Gibson into his business with the understanding the chiropractor would be a “medical specialist” and bring in sprinters and other elite athletes he knew. However, no well-known athletes followed Gibson to the center, Villani said.

Villani, who now runs a training facility in Boca Raton, Fla., said Gibson “always was trying to push supplements on our guys,” another thing that soured their relationship.

After a few months, Villani said he informed Gibson their arrangement wasn’t working out.

Connecting with players

According to ProPublica, Gibson’s ability to attract football clients was aided by his office’s proximity to Georgia Tech. Former Tech defensive end Derrick Morgan, now with the Tennessee Titans, told the website that Gibson’s name became known to the team as a result of his work with the Yellow Jackets’ Michael Johnson, a defensive end now with Tampa Bay.

Gibson’s connection to the NFL has been largely through the Baltimore Ravens, an association that began when a track athlete who was working with him, Marshevet Hooker, began dating Willis McGahee, then a running back with the team, ProPublica said.

In 2011, Ravens safety Ed Reed told ESPN.com that he and other players “work with Dr. Clayton Gibson and his anti-aging program in Miami every day for four hours. We do acupuncture, chiropractic work, foot detoxes …”

Gibson also has worked with Jets linebacker Calvin Pace, who was suspended by the NFL for four games in 2009 after he tested positive for a performance-enhancing substance.

Pace, who grew up in Lithia Springs, told reporters at the time the positive test resulted from his use of a “workout supplement” that could be purchased “at any GNC.” He declined to identify it.

A lighter sentence

The Tyson Gay case has thrust Gibson into the middle of an international imbroglio that has played out in recent months with the USADA praising the 31-year-old sprinter, the 2007 world champion at 100 and 200 meters, for his cooperation.

In announcing that Gay would receive a one-year ban instead of the customary two, the USADA cited his “substantial assistance” to the organization’s investigation, including providing the products he was using.

Gay stopped competing last summer after failing the tests, making him eligible to compete again in July.

Drummond’s lawsuit, filed just weeks after the announcement, details a meeting in Atlanta a month before the 2012 Olympics in which he and Gay talked to Gibson about obtaining “legitimate” supplements.

According to the suit, Gibson’s creams had labels referring to banned substances, including DHEA, an anabolic agent long banned in Olympic sports. When asked for an explanation, Gibson said the creams were mislabeled to allow non-athletes, who aren’t subject to drug testing, to better “understand the function of the products,” the suit says.

Under federal law, manufacturers and distributors of dietary supplements are prohibited from marketing products that are adulterated or misbranded.

Gibson, according to Trigg, denies ever inaccurately representing the ingredients of any product.

The suit, which alleges defamation by Gay, the USADA and its CEO Travis Tygert, says Gibson’s products were shipped to Gay — at a cost of $9,000 — but Drummond recommended the sprinter get rid of them.

“Mr. Drummond expressly commented that they did not know Dr. Gibson well enough to rely on his representations and that Mr. Gay could not take the risk of using products that they could not specifically confirm were appropriate for him to use,” the lawsuit states.

The USADA has called the suit “baseless” and an attempt to circumvent the group’s process for establishing the guilt or innocence of those involved in doping cases.

Neither Drummond’s attorney nor Gay’s agents returned calls from the AJC.

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