With all his drug tests coming up negative, Olympic sprinter Justin Gatlin’s expected success just might be a classic case of old-fashioned hard work and second chances.
He lined up at for the start of the men’s 200-meter race last week at the United States National Championships in Eugene, Oregon. All business and concentration while the others were introduced, he seemed to peer inside his soul for a few minutes. If he had taken the time look around the track at his competitors, he would’ve seen he was, by far at the age of 33, the oldest man out there.
No matter. Justin Gatlin had been down this road before.
The gun sounded and he emerged out of the blocks like a bullet out of the starter’s gun. He ran in second place for the first 75 meters, then as the field headed out of the turn, Gatlin found another gear, an explosion seemingly unique to this athlete, as if years of experience and wisdom had taught him to hold back, maybe even taunt the competition, before showing them who the real man in the crowd was.
When it was over, not only had Gatlin smoked the field to earn a place on the US team at the World Championships in Beijing this coming August 22-30, but he ran a 19.57, a personal best for him, the best in the world this year and the fifth-fastest of all time.
“I wanted to go out and make a statement, and that’s what I did today,” Gatlin told the Associated Press after the race. “That’s probably one of the best races I’ve had.”
To run that fast at that age is practically unthinkable. By contrast, Usain Bolt, the world record holder in the event, was only 23 when he ran a 19.19 in Berlin in 2009. The closest anyone in the top 5 to Bolt’s age was Michael Johnson, who was 29 when he ran 19.32 in the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.
And for, Gatlin, last week was really just the encore. On May 15, he ran the 5th fastest 100-meter race of all time, clocking a 9.74 in Doha, Qatar.
Who’s your daddy, track and field?
If there could be a poster child for second chances, Gatlin would fit the bill.
Gatlin broke onto the international scene when he won the gold medal in the 100 at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, and added a bronze in the 200 and silver as a member of the US 4 x 100-meter relay team. Two years later, he set a world record in the 100, recording a 9.76, but the international governing body of track and field, the IAAF, ruled that his time had actually been 9.766, which rounded up to 9.77, 1/100th of a second off the record.
The worst was yet to come. In 2006, after a meet in April, a drug test came up positive for testosterone or something similar. A second test also came up positive, and Gatlin was suspended, originally for 8 years. Eventually the suspension was cut in half.
As expected, once Gatlin came back, it took some time for his to shake off the rust. Two years after his return, Gatlin found himself back atop the medal podium after running a 9.87 in Doha, then won the 2012 Olympic Trials in 9.80, the fastest time ever for a man over the age of 30.
Turns out that was just a precursor. At an age when most sprinters have hung up their spikes and taken up coaching at their alma mater or some local community college, Gatlin showed that for him, 30 was the new 20. He set a then-personal best in the 100 at 9.79 to win a bronze medal at the 2012 Olympics in London, then a year later defeated Bolt, considered by many the greatest sprinter of all time, by 1/100th of a second at a meet in Rome.
With his victory last week at the US Nationals, Gatlin will once again square off against Bolt in the 200 at the Worlds. He also qualified in the 100 as the result of winning the Diamond League title and will face Bolt in that sprint, as well.
Gatlin seemingly can’t wait for August. “Bolt is not up to par right now. He’s even said that,” he told AP the day after winning the 200 at the US Nationals. “People want to see him get up to par and that’s what everybody is focused on. Then, we’ll worry about who’s the guy to beat and the guy who’s going to get beat.”
Given his history, it’s easy to suspect that Gatlin is juicing again, but thus far all of his drug tests have come up negative. Good old fashioned hard work and training by a good old fashioned sprinter?
More than likely, yes.
It might be something for the younger sprinters to think about if he smokes them again in August.
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Photo: Kirsty Wigglesworth/Associated Press