Justin Gatlin outruns his mistakes after 11 years in purgatory
The unexpected 100-meter champion opens up about doping, chasing Usain Bolt and keeping the faith
LONDON — Justin Gatlin knew he had conquered the king as soon as he crossed the finish line. He waited for confirmation from the giant scoreboard, waited for validation from the fans and recognition by the rulers of his sport. When the numbers appeared next to his name, proving he had finally defeated Usain Bolt, Gatlin cried.
The crowd booed. Meet organizers rescheduled the medal ceremony. The last person they wanted to spoil Bolt’s final 100-meter race was the man they called a two-time drug cheat. But Gatlin was finally at peace. In the span of 9.92 seconds at the IAAF World Championships here, he ended an 11-year struggle with despair, futility and rejection.
Bolt, who finished third behind Gatlin and another American, Christian Coleman, will retire after he runs for the Jamaican 4×100-meter relay Saturday. Gatlin and his American squad will face Bolt. Ahead of their final matchup, Gatlin sat down at the Team USA hotel to talk about his journey.
Gatlin’s ordeal began in 2006, when he tested positive for testosterone. After a four-year suspension filled with alcohol, depression and near-suicidal thoughts, he returned to the track, only to be overwhelmed race after race by the fastest man in history, including a soul-crushing loss to Bolt in the 2015 world championship final. At the 2016 Rio Olympics, the plague of boos began. Yet Gatlin professed satisfaction with winning silver in the 100 behind Bolt.
“All those losses, I turned to lessons,” Gatlin said. “I started to figure out how I can become faster, how I can become more race sharp, how I can manage my race with a little more wisdom.
“A small voice in my head was like, ‘Man, you’re better than this. You’re better than this. You’re better than this.’ That’s what kept pushing me.”
Gatlin, 35, made his name at the 2004 Athens Olympics, where he knocked off defending 100-meter Olympic champion Maurice Greene in 9.85 seconds. In 2005, Gatlin won the 100 and 200 world titles. In May 2006, he equaled Asafa Powell’s then-world record of 9.77 seconds.
In July 2006, Gatlin was driving his truck one night in North Carolina, where he lived and trained. He was a 24-year-old millionaire, “living high, having a good time. Still staying focused and running and competing. I didn’t feel complacent. I was always hungry just to compete.”
Gatlin’s cellphone rang. His mother and agent were on the line. A drug test had come back positive.
“I was so devastated that I had to pull over to the side of the road. At that point in time, I was in tears. I couldn’t function, so I couldn’t even drive home. I had to have a friend come pick me up,” Gatlin said.
Five years earlier, while competing for the University of Tennessee, Gatlin had tested positive for trace levels of a stimulant contained in a prescription for attention deficit disorder that he had taken since childhood. The rules called for a two-year ban, but the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency said Gatlin “neither cheated nor intended to cheat.” An arbitration panel said Gatlin is “certainly not a doper.” His penalty was reduced to one year.
A second positive test, however, could have meant a lifetime ban.
Gatlin’s mother, in testimony at Gatlin’s USADA hearing, recalled him screaming and yelling over the phone. “He fell apart. He just kept on saying, ‘I’m dead, I’m dead, I’m dead. It’s over, it’s over, it’s — I’m dead, Mommy, I’m dead.’ ”
In the interview, and in his statements over the years about the positive test, Gatlin said he did not knowingly take any banned substances, and that a disgruntled therapist for his track team massaged testosterone into his body without his knowledge. The therapist, Christopher Whetstine, has denied sabotaging Gatlin. He did not return a Facebook message asking for comment for this article.
“I’ve always said that I don’t know how it happened to me, but my best guess is that it was applied to me topically by a therapist of some sort I was working with,” Gatlin said in the interview. “That’s still for me not to point the finger but to take responsibility. I’ve grown up from that. I said, you know, I have to take responsibility because I allowed those people in my circle and in my life.”
“Those people” included Gatlin’s coach, Trevor Graham, who would soon be banned for life from track and field. Numerous runners have said Graham gave them performance-enhancing drugs, including disgraced former Olympic champion Marion Jones. So why did Gatlin choose to train with a coach like Graham?
“When I came into the sport, I didn’t know any backgrounds about anybody. I just wanted to race. I wanted to run,” he said. “I knew that at that point in time, he was coaching athletes who went on to win medals. I wanted to be with the best, like anybody else would want to,” Gatlin said. “From there, allegations started swirling. … We just stayed focused and kept our head down and we trained.”
Many have questioned Gatlin’s theory about his massage therapist. They point to his testimony at a USADA hearing that Graham recommended he talk to a doctor about getting a shot of vitamin B-12 to help a bothersome hamstring. Two weeks before the positive test, Gatlin testified, Graham and assistant coach Randall Evans came to his house, and Evans injected Gatlin’s hamstring. Gatlin testified that he believed the injection was B-12.
Does Gatlin now believe Graham gave him banned substances, or instructed others to dope him?
“Do [I] think that he was the person that did it to me? No,” Gatlin said. “Do [I] think that him being the adult in the situation and able to protect me? I think there could have been a better job done.”
In a phone interview, Graham claimed that USADA faked Gatlin’s positive test to eliminate Graham from the sport.
I asked Gatlin why so many people don’t believe his explanation.
“Next time you get a massage and you go to a massage chain or at a spa,” he said, “and you’re facing down in the cradle, and you can’t see behind you, and you’re laying on your stomach. Then someone comes in and they start massaging you. They’re using massage lotion and oils and gels. Think to yourself: Do you really know what they’re putting on you? You can’t see. You don’t know what’s happening.”
“That’s where the trust lies. That’s where the inner circle is. I think that inner circle definitely broke.”
Gatlin received an eight-year ban, later reduced to four because of the inadvertent nature of his first offense, and because he worked with federal agents by secretly recording his phone conversations with Graham.
“I was in denial for a little while. Then I went into depression. I got to a point where, I wouldn’t say I was suicidal, but I would say that I felt like my existence wasn’t worth much as a person. … I was partying every day of the week, trying to drown out the sorrow, drown out the pain, and getting drunk. Driving when I shouldn’t be driving. It could have been worse. Could have had DUIs. I was at a point where I was like, you know what, if I’m driving and I wrap my car around this tree right here, no one would miss me.”
His millionaire lifestyle over and done, Gatlin learned how to balance his checkbook and choose between food or gas. He worked as a personal trainer and gave the NFL a brief shot. He coached kids and counseled young athletes on how to avoid his mistakes. Through it all, he was encouraged to return to the sport by other track athletes, childhood friends and family members.
In 2008, he sat in a bar and watched Bolt launch his legend with a world-record 9.69 seconds in the Beijing Olympics.
“It touched the competitor, the competitive side of me. It was inspiring. I looked at that TV screen and it’s like, I want to race that guy. That’s who I want to race.”
Gatlin returned to the track in 2010, despite being branded as a cheater. He finished his first race in a sluggish 10.26. “I was scared. I was nervous. I valued what people thought of me. It put up a wall where I couldn’t really connect to what my heart was. My heart was my fire to come back, run and not care what people thought or said.”
In 2011, he was eliminated in the world championship semifinals after running 10.23. He refined his technique and shed weight, chiseling his 6-foot-1 frame down to 180 pounds. In the 2012 Olympics, Gatlin won bronze in a blazing 9.79. Bolt clocked a stupendous 9.63.
The chase — not a rivalry, a chase — was on. Overshadowed by Bolt’s enormous talent and personality, Gatlin’s pursuit could sometimes seem pointless.
“He carries a certain type of energy into the stadium,” Gatlin said. “As a competitor to a Usain Bolt, it’s an energy I’ve never felt before in my life. I know I strike fear in a lot of those sprinters’ hearts. What he has done with that energy and already standing at 6-5, that’s intimidating.”
“It’s almost to the point where … you are a spectator on the track. When the gun goes off, you’re already looking to wherever he is and how the race is going to unfold. Boom — you’re watching the race. You’re not even in the race anymore. I think that over the last couple of years, I had to be able to definitely wean myself away from that mentality.”
Gatlin managed to edge Bolt in 9.94 seconds in an insignificant 2013 early-season race in Rome, when the self-professed “lazy” Bolt was out of shape and coming off a hamstring injury. Later that year, in the world championships, Bolt asserted his supremacy with a 9.77. Gatlin took silver in 9.85.
They did not race each other in 2014, when there were no world championships. Gatlin lowered his time to 9.77 seconds.
In 2015, as Bolt moseyed through his normal lackadaisical early-season times, Gatlin scorched other races with a 9.78, 9.77, two 9.75s and a 9.74. He was primed. In the world championships, Gatlin got out to his usual lead, and for once, Bolt did not reel him in. But in the final 20 meters, Gatlin lost his nerve and his stride. He staggered through the finish line. Bolt edged him by .01 of a second.
Driving back to his hotel, Gatlin “cried like a baby.”
“It felt like I was back in that nightmare again, like this cannot be happening,” he said. “I cannot be standing on the other side of this finish line and not be the victor.”
These 2017 IAAF World Championships were supposed to be Bolt’s valedictory lap. Winner of three gold medal races in an unprecedented three straight Olympics, holder of world records in the 100, 200 and 4×100, he had never been tainted by any allegations of drug use. The script was written for a hero’s exit.
The villains had their place, too. Track and field’s doping crisis was in full, ugly view in London. More than three dozen athletes received upgraded medals because cheaters from past championships were caught by improved testing technology. Even the beloved Bolt has lost one of his Olympic relay golds because of a teammate’s positive test. As the most prominent symbol of this dysfunction in London, Gatlin was booed every time he stepped onto the track.
But after being surprised by the hate in Rio, Gatlin was ready. “I blocked it out because when the boos were over, I could hear some cheers. I focused on that, each round.” By the time he reached the finals, the boos fueled him.
“It was like, I got to deliver some karma today. That’s what I felt like. I got to go out here and show the world how tough I am.”
“When I stepped on the line, I took all the pressure off me and I thought about all the people who have cheered for me, in the stadium, at home watching on television, back here in this hotel, family members, childhood friends. Those are the people I did it for. When I did that, it instantly took away all pressure.”
“I just never stopped believing in myself.”
Sometimes he wonders: If he had not been banned for four years, would he have aged out while the younger Bolt remained in his prime? Would he still be clocking sub-10 seconds at age 35, with plans to make the 2020 Tokyo Olympics? If he had beaten Bolt in 2015, would that have motivated Bolt to train his way into top form for his last race?
“He deserves to be here,” Bolt said after his loss. “He’s done his time and he’s worked hard to get back to being one of the best athletes. … I’ve said it over the years, he’s a great competitor.”
Gatlin was caught with banned drugs in his body, under the supervision of an outlaw coach. He knows he can never outlive those mistakes.
But he can outrun them.
The day after Gatlin’s victory, meet organizers moved his medal ceremony from prime TV time to 10 minutes before the broadcast began. More boos rained down — but this time, the cheers could be heard, too.