On a bright December afternoon in Orlando, Justin Gatlin dreams of still being seen as a track and field icon.
A decade ago, he blitzed to 100m glory in the heart of the now near-derelict Olympic Park in Athens. But after failing a drugs test two years later, Gatlin became an outcast. Now, he appears destined to remain a nagging reminder of the sport’s dark side, a chronic battle against a culture of cheating which it shows no sign of winning.
Underneath Gatlin’s customary bravado lies a stark truth.
Born: Brooklyn, New York
Best (100m): 9.77sec
Best (200m): 19.68sec
Olympics: 1G, 2S, 2B
World C’ships: 4G, 2S
“I want people to be able to say, ‘this guy has true fire, he’s a true warrior, he’s been through adversity in life but he’s also fought it out with the best of them from Maurice Greene to Usain Bolt’,” Gatlin told Al Jazeera.
Having compiled six of the fastest 100m times during an unbeaten 2014 season, Gatlin was nominated for the IAAF Athlete of the Year award.
Few celebrated, a lot more raised eyebrows. Shortly afterwards, the IAAF left him off the final shortlist. Gatlin insisted he gave little thought to the hostility.
“For people to get mad about a popularity contest is just silly. And it was hurdlers and discus throwers. If a 100m or 200m guy was to speak out against me, that would’ve been different. I’ve come too far. I’m not going to sit out four years, then come back and be knocked down by a few words or a few opinions.”
Through the ‘darkness’
Gatlin spoke with such conviction that it was easy to forget he almost quit the track for good following his ban.
“I have a pedigree which gave me the pride to keep going. It goes back to my college years, winning six NCAA titles against future Olympians. That was my candle to see my way through the darkness and all the drama.”
The ‘darkness’ he talks of is his claim that he was framed. Almost all drug cheats use that line but eight years on, he maintains his career was sabotaged by a team member.
Extremely stubborn or genuinely innocent, only Gatlin knows the truth. But in an era where the next doping scandal is just around the corner, it could be difficult dealing with the knowledge that most won’t ever believe him.
Gatlin’s refusal to admit guilt and show the expected remorse has attracted anger and scorn from the athletic world. The air of defiance which surrounds his wins has proved antagonistic. Gatlin insists he is misjudged.
“Everyone who stood by me during my adversity – my parents, my agent – are the people whose opinions I really care about.
“I never came back with a chip on my shoulder. I never came back angry to the sport. I love the sport. I love what it has done for a lot of people and what it can do in the future. I just want to be able to contribute to that in a good way.”
I love the sport. I love what it has done for a lot of people and what it can do in the future
With the help of new coach Dennis Mitchell, Gatlin has channelled his sense of injustice and naturally addictive personality into his running.
But for a man who claims to be trying to ‘recapture some kind of glory’, the decision to work with Mitchell, a former cheat banned for two years in 1998 and later implicated in the BALCO scandal, appears wildly misguided. Gatlin vehemently disagrees.
“I just needed a coach who could kind of understand my plight, my drive and one who believed in me. We’ve just dug into the trenches and gone at it together.
“Instead of focusing on the negativity from people who really should have no voice, I can just focus on the running aspect and being a better athlete.”
At 32, Gatlin is fully aware that the clock is ticking. Rio 2016 will almost certainly be his last major hurrah. But while most sprinters in their 30s are raging against the dying of the light, Gatlin appears to be getting faster.
This year, he has already recorded personal bests in 100m and 200m which place him among the top 10 fastest men in history. But it’s all too much for some to believe, especially with preclinical experiments suggesting that performance enhancing drugs may continue to benefit an athlete for up to a decade.
“I think it’s silly. You can’t compare an athlete to a lab rat. If this was the case, the likes of Tim Montgomery would have come back running the same times. But he didn’t. With me, it’s not like I was running 10.8 or 10.5 and all of a sudden I’m now running 9.7. I’ve always had those times. The times I’m running now are down to my hard work.”
If Gatlin’s rise continues, he may well pose a serious threat to Bolt in Rio. The idea of a convicted doper becoming Olympic 100m champion is a hard one for many to stomach but there’s a relish to Gatlin’s voice as he anticipates facing Bolt once more on the biggest stage of all.
“When I look at him, I see a showman. I see a guy who’s going to step up to the plate and get it done. And that makes me look at my flaws want to fix things. I’m a competitor. That’s what drives me.
“I’m not worried about what anyone else thinks of me.”