Justin Gatlin: Earned Redemption? by Dave Hunter

This piece will find some sympathy with some readers and with others, it will make them furious that I have published such a piece. I encourage the discussion. Can an athlete who has tested positive redeem himself or herself? 

Ironically, such a conversation has been brought to the forefront by Lauren Fleshman's recent blog on Dennis Mitchell, with a drug conviction, who was the World Relays relay coach. USATF's Jill Geer noted that Mr. Mitchell had served his time, and that should be that. Lauren Fleshman did not concur. Read her thoughts and the fascinating comments of her readers at http://asklaurenfleshman.com/2014/05/why-a-convicted-doper-as-the-usa-team-coach-is-a-bad-idea/

Justin Gatlin, since his return to competition, has kept quiet, for the most part, and focused on running. That he is being tested is obvious. That he is under much scrutiny is obvious. So Gatlin sprints, trains, sprints some more, around the world. 

Justin Gatlin has let his feet do the talking. And that, is what he has done.

Dave Hunter wrote this provocative piece on Justin Gatlin. Tell us what you think about Justin Gatlin. Has he earned redemption? Send your notes to [email protected]


Justin Gatlin:  Earned Redemption

May 26th, 2014

You're the world's leading sprinter.  You have already captured four global gold medals in the Olympic Games and the World Championships.  But suddenly your world comes crashing down as a banned substance violation results in a 4-year suspension from the sport to which Dave_Hunter_Right_On_Track.pngyou have dedicated your life.  Without complaint or melodrama, you soldier through your four years of enforced idleness.  Upon your return to the track - at age 27 - you are treated as an outcast, a pariah as you are shunned by vast sectors of the sport.  At that moment, would you be inclined to quietly end your sprinting career?  Or would this grim reality further fuel your comeback?

For Justin Gatlin - who traveled this road - the choice was easy.  "The people out there who believe in me, they are the ones that have been pushing me to be not only a good athlete but a better athlete than I was before," notes the amiable 100 meter specialist in describing what has motivated his successful return to the track.

Gatlin - whose upbeat personality promotes his positive outlook on whatever life brings his way - cites the mixed reaction to his post-suspension return to the sprints as a positive and inspiring development.   "It opened my eyes to really great things.  It played not only to my talent, but also to my character.  I wasn't too worried about the critics.  You're always going to have critics, no matter if you do good or you do bad," offers the 32-year old sprinter.  "At this point of time, it helped me gauge my true fan base and the people I'm out there running for."

When Gatlin's suspension was lifted in July of 2010, few wanted anything to do with the punished former Olympic champion.  Lack of sponsorship and entry denial to marquee meets made life difficult for the reinstated sprinter.  "I really had to start at smaller meets where my plane ticket cost more than what I was taking home.  So I really had to focus on my passion for the sport and the essence of track & field - not just about the financial gain," explains Gatlin.  "I had to focus on the experience of the sport and the feel of running again."  Like many other track athletes, Gatlin was reminded that you're only as good as your last stopwatch reading.  "Our sport is definitely built on a 'what have you done for me lately?' kind of a feel.  You could be a great athlete one year and run great times.  And the next year you might be running very sub-par and people are going to forget how good you were the previous year," Gatlin candidly explains.  The returning 100 meter man didn't complain.  He knew top performances would be his only ticket back.  "I really didn't speak much publicly.  I let my talent do the work.  I came back. I trained hard.  Back in July of 2010, I dropped a couple of 10.00's; I raced a young Yohan [Blake] all the way to the finish line in a couple of races.  So I think I proved physically that I am a really natural talent."  By the end of the outdoor season, Gatlin - with a best 2010 time of 10.09 - had turned more than a few heads.  But there was more.

The sprinter's return progressed further the following year.  "I didn't come back with a chip on my shoulder.  I was just glad to be able to come back and run again," explains Gatlin.  "I didn't have a contract.  So I'm just out there running for the passion of it.  I focused on getting better - better and better in each race."  And he did.  In 2011, the rejuvenated athlete chipped his comeback PR down to 9.95 and was a semifinalist in the World Championships.

Gatlin kept pushing, stayed focused.  2012 - an Olympic year - saw the comebacking sprinter get after it early.  "I went out there in 2012 and I worked on my start with my coach. [Dennis Mitchell]."  It paid off as Gatlin capped a rare indoor season by capturing the world indoor 60 meter title.  The indoor short dash crown was a notable accomplishment, to be sure.  But the boost the global victory gave to his confidence may have been even more important.  "It showed my staying power," notes Gatlin in explaining what the world title meant.  "A lot of people wrote me off saying I would never make the final in any kind of championship ever again; I would never win another gold medal again of any kind; there are too many fast people in the sport now, et cetera.  But I guess I showed that I had a true champion's mentality."

The indoor global victory lifted Gatlin to a higher level.  2012 outdoor wins at Daegu, Doha, and the Pre Classic set the stage for Gatlin's 100 meter triumph [in the PR time of 9.80] at the U.S. Olympic Trials.  At the London Games, Gatlin defied his skeptics - not simply by making the Olympic 100m final, but also by capturing the bronze medal.  Gatlin's 9.79 clocking - another PR - actually bettered the 9.85 time he posted in winning the 100 meter title at the 2004 Athens Games.  And while there are a few talented and enduring sprinters who have won two 100 meter Olympic medals, Gatlin's stunning London performance allowed him to became the only men's 100 meter finalist to capture Olympic medals 8 years apart.  

Gatlin appreciates the rarity and the significance of his dual Olympic 100 meter medals eight years apart.  "When you think about the 100 meters, it is an event where talent comes and goes very quickly," notes Gatlin as he discusses the short shelf life of world class century sprinters.  "It is almost as if you are looking at 100 meter "stars" that are almost supernovas - very magnificent, very brilliant in their times and their peaks - and then they are gone."  Yet Gatlin chooses to view his history-making achievement not as wholly satisfying, but as motivating.  "I think someone in my situation would look at that [his London bronze medal 8 years after his Athens gold] and be content with that success," offers Gatlin.  "But it actually made me more hungry.  So I thought, 'OK, I did that.  I ran a 9.79 and got on the podium.'  And then I looked at all of the flaws I had in my race.  And that's what I wanted to fix going into the next year.  So it made me more motivated to be a better athlete."

Gatlin was no less competitive in 2013.  He made yet another global final at the World Championships in Moscow.  Gatlin's season best performance in the rain-swept final put him back on the global podium - one step higher - as his 9.85 clocking earned him the silver medal behind the peerless Usain Bolt.

Justin Gatlin is off to a sizzling start in 2014.  His poise at Penn saved the day for the American squad in the "USA vs. The World" competition.  Running the second leg in the 4 x 100 relay, Gatlin was nimble enough to make a split second adjustment after USA lead-off runner Charles Silmon was bumped by a Nigerian sprinter as he raced into the exchange zone.  By the first exchange, Team USA looked out of it.  But Gatlin roared down the backstretch and executed a picture perfect exchange with Mookie Salaam to allow USA anchor Walter Dix to squeeze out a narrow USA victory over Jamaica. Gatlin's Far East springtime racing tour followed, where the 100 meter veteran posted impressive wins at Tokyo [10.02 into a 3.5 headwind - the fastest 100m clocking into any headwind in excess of 2.0 meters per second], at Shanghai [9.92], and at Beijing [a current world leading 9.87].

So as the outdoor season of 2014 - a year without a global outdoor championship meet - begins to unfold, Justin Gatlin has ambitious plans.  "I just want to go out and run like a wild stallion, man," Gatlin exclaims.  "Whether or not it's a world championship year or an Olympic year, you and your coach have to sit down and be able to determine exactly when you want to peak.  You don't want to peak too early and you don't want to peak too late.  This year is really an open season.  So you can come out of the hole running fast.  You can run fast whenever you want to."

Gatlin is comfortable in explaining why he came back to track & field.  "I thought about going into another professional sport.  But then I thought, 'Why should I leave the sport where once I was the king, and go into another sport where I am going to be behind the eight ball?'  Sometimes you have to fight to show the world that you are better than what the world thinks you are.  Leaving the sport, I want people to understand that our sport is about running fast, and about fighting.  We are fighters out there when we step to that line.  We are shoulder to shoulder with each other.  We are 8 men starting from equal points to be able to run a race together down the track.  And may the best man win."

Gatlin - who seems to be gracefully embracing his emerging role as the grand old man of American sprinting - is very direct about his remaining goals in track & field.  "I want another gold medal.  I don't want to be shy about it. I want to have the American record," announces Gatlin without hesitation.  "I think a lot of people are probably thinking, 'Man, you are 32.  When the next Olympics comes around, you'll be 34.'  But I'm out to make history.  That's what our sport is about.  Our sport is about breaking records, making history, wowing the people."

There is no lack of motivation for the sprinter whose Phoenix-like return to the sport has already allowed him to make history with his two Olympic 100 meter medals 8 years apart.  But how will others remember Justin Gatlin?  After Gatlin's 4-year drug suspension, no one would have been surprised had the aging dash man- with four global sprinting golds to his credit - quietly hung up his spikes and moved on.  Had his suspension prompted an early retirement, Gatlin's sprint legacy would have been markedly different than how Gatlin will now likely be remembered in light of his impressive comeback.  It is undoubtedly true that some will see Gatlin's sprinting accomplishments as forever overshadowed by his banned substance violation and his subsequent fall from grace.  But more - many more - will choose to remember Justin Gatlin not only for his Olympic and World Championship gold medals, but also for his post-suspension determination and the accompanying sensational performances that earned him his hard-fought redemption.  

~Dave Hunter

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