Writing a piece on Justin Gatlin, after his retirement is problematic. I have seen all of Justin Gatlin’s championship performances except his NCAA championships. I was in Europe when, Justin Gatlin tested positive, and after his ban, reduced from eight years, began to compete in 2010. It took him a couple of years to get back into racing shape, and he took on the vitriol and hatred of the global sport.
Through the booing, the name-calling, Justin Gatlin did the only thing that he could: he said little, stayed respectful, and let his sprinting do the talking. This is Deji’s piece on Justin Gatlin and his legacy.
Justin Gatlin, 2021 U.S. Olympic Trials, Day 2, photo by Courtney White
Gatlin’s retirement reveals how much top athletes should protect their reputation, especially in athletics.
If a genie had appeared out of a bottle in early 2017 and told Justin Gatlin that not only would he become a World Champion over the 100m while Usain Bolt was still alive, or he would still be running actively until just before he clocked 40, he might have believed the first bit while scoffing at the second. Yet, here we are.
One of the most vilified athletes to ever grace the track announced his retirement from the sport a couple of weeks back. His career is three folds, well, four if you count the early parts of his teens where he won four NCAA titles that do not count for records purposes on his international profile.
Olympic Champion, Drug ban, his much-vilified return, and World Champion. End of story.
The World of sports is very unforgiving to drug cheats. Talk more of a sport like athletics that has an illustrious history of athletes that have been found culpable over the years. It taints you for life regardless of how you try to prove your innocence and regain your lost reputation, significantly if you got spoiled more than once.
Gatlin was as precocious as a sprinter came. Very few athletes could boast of being an Olympic Champion over the men’s 100m at 22. Some posited it was the changing of the guard when the then flag bearer of American sprinting, Maurice Greene, only managed to take Bronze in the final in Athens.
Then his travails began. It actually did before the 2004 Olympics when he was banned for two years in 2001 after testing positive for amphetamines. Then, Gatlin appealed, saying the positive test had been due to ADHD medication, and the ban was lifted early.
The following year after his Olympics triumph saw him dominate the 100m, one that cumulated with him becoming a World Champion over the 100m and 200m at the World Championships in Helsinki in 2005, besting an unknown 18-year-Old kid named Usain Bolt. It was pure bliss. An athlete in his prime, who was going to stop him?
In 2006, Gatlin accepted an eight-year ban from track and field after testing positive for testosterone, avoiding a lifetime one in exchange for his co-operation with the doping authorities. A further appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport -reducing the four-year ban to two years based on the first 2001 case not being part of the evidence – failed and Gatlin subsequently missed Beijing in 2008.
At this point, it felt like he was done for. The end had come. What was once a promising career was cut short due to a doping ban. Competitors, colleagues, and the wider audience lost trust in him completely. Gatlin, however, was determined to make a return. It was going to be difficult and daunting, but he was willing to go at it.
At 28, he had to start all over. After four years of non-activeness, the World of sprinting had moved on. There was a new King on the throne in Usain Bolt, one who everybody loved. At that point, Gatlin knew he not only had to win, but he would also have to contend with the ever-growing love the sport had for the Jamaican.
As expected, he couldn’t run inside 10 seconds at this return in 2010, and with the World Championships approaching the following year, time wasn’t on his side. Still, he managed to make the team to Daegu in 2011, but he wasn’t looked upon as a contender. A young Yohan Blake had emerged, Tyson Gay was on top of his game, and there was Bolt who had taken then the sport by the scruff of its neck with his impeccable performances until then.
After failing to make it past the semis at the World Championships, Gatlin picked up the pieces and returned for what has been tagged one of the fastest seasons in terms of the men’s 100m. The protagonists for the title were many, and surprisingly Gatlin was in the mix.
He ran consistently inside 9.90 that year, as he took Bronze at the Olympic final. It was a moment of respite for him, not so for the London fans, who still saw him as a cheat. Bolt and Yohan Blake, who both did a 1-2 for Jamaica, knew at that point that their rivalry went beyond themselves.
With Blake having to deal with injuries, it was left to Gatlin to challenge Bolt for the fastest man in the World for the subsequent years, a duel that even the Jamaican didn’t find easy.
From the World Championships in Moscow in 2013 to Beijing in 2015, Gatlin eventually ran 9.74 for his Personal Best during that period. In fact, the final in Beijing pitted him as ‘evil’ against the ‘Good’ of Usain Bolt. He was at that point running against the World. He just could not convince the wider audience that he was running clean and the aftermath of the drug ban isn’t affecting his current performance.
Two second-place finishes to Bolt at two major championships and Gatlin was not deterred on getting back to the pinnacle of sprinting. Gatlin, though, kept building momentum and qualified for the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics. The then 34-year-old Gatlin became the oldest U.S. sprinter to qualify for the Olympics in more than a century.
At the Rio Olympics, he once again came unstuck with Bolt winning his third Olympic Crown. His redemption aim had to wait for another year. It eventually came, but not in the way many would have expected.
12 years after his last world title, Justin Gatlin came from the outside lane to defeat Usain Bolt at the London 2017 World Championships. It was not the swansong Bolt had wanted, not least the fans who booed him after the results at the stadium revealed that Bolt had not won.
Gatlin could not defend his title in Doha in 2019 and his attempt to qualify for a fourth Olympics did not materialize as he recently announced his retirement from the sport.
Once a burgeoning star turned track villain, Gatlin revitalized his career and put himself into the conversation of all-time great sprinters. However, his reputation took a big dent with the drug ban. And that is one major reason athletes should protect their reputation, especially in sports like athletics.