EUGENE, Oregon — It was 40 years ago Saturday — May 30, 1975 — that Steve Prefontaine crashed his gold 1973 MGB convertible on a curve here on Skyline Boulevard and died. He is by now legend, myth, icon and the man that America wants its track heroes to be. By all rights, amid this year’s running of the Prefontaine Classic, the guy who should be America’s track and field hero is Justin Gatlin. He won the 200 meters here Saturday in 19.68, eighth-fastest in history, a meet record. Gatlin’s challenge is not what he does between the lines. It’s what he says when he’s not performing. And how he handles himself, and his doping-related past.
This is all a reminder that this hero business is hard. And yet not so. A little humility and accountability, and knowing what to say at the right time, can go a long way.
Americans can be so forgiving. There is a deep well of forgiveness just waiting for Justin Gatlin if he can find it in himself to get to that place of honest redemption. When he was introduced here before the start of the 200, there were cheers, not boos. After the race, he spent a half-hour signing autographs and had to be dragged away to talk to reporters on deadline.
Is Justin Gatlin a hero? Can he be? What would it take to really, truly get him there?
What went down here in Eugene over the weekend is also a reminder of track and field’s niche role in the American scene, and how even an amazing meet like this year’s Pre Classic — which seemingly featured virtually every great track star in the world save Jamaica's Usain Bolt and Kenya's David Rudisha — is but a starting block.
Track and field has to be — and this is the aim of the organizers of the 2021 world championships in Eugene — a sport that goes through the winter and spring and into the summer and captures the public imagination, well beyond Hayward Field, beyond Eugene, beyond Portland, beyond Oregon.
It needs stories and stars.
On Saturday, a sell-out crowd of 13,278 at Hayward Field saw the likes of France’s Renaud Lavillenie, who tried three times Saturday to break the world record in the pole vault — 20 feet, 2 1/2 inches — on an injured shoulder, only to come up just short; American Allyson Felix, who ran a sophisticated 50.05 to win the women’s 400; Granada’s Kirani James, who ran a breathtaking 43.95 to win the men’s 400; and, of course, the incomparable Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce of Jamaica, the multiple Olympic champion in the sprints, who won the women’s 100 in 10.81.
It needs the likes of Justin Gatlin.
Gatlin ought to be huge. Not just in track and field but as a breakout star. Like Prefontaine.
Last year, Gatlin did not lose a race. He is the 2004 100-meter champion. He is now back, at age 33, and running ridiculously fast.
At a Diamond League meet a few weeks ago, he ran a 9.74 in the 100 — his best-ever, and the fourth-fastest time of all time. Only Bolt (9.58 in 2009), American Tyson Gay (9.69, 2009), Jamaica's Yohan Blake (9.69, 2012) and another Jamaican, Asafa Powell (9.72, 2008), have run faster.
At the World Relays in the Bahamas earlier this month, Gatlin’s second leg in the 4x100 was so quick that even Bolt, running anchor, had no chance to catch Ryan Bailey, who took it home for the Americans.
You want to know why Nike recently gave Gatlin a new contract?
Gatlin is a serious, legitimate, for-real threat to take out Bolt this August at the world championships in August and next year at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
Bolt — just for the record — runs for Puma.
All this has come for Gatlin, again, at age 33. He has two doping run-ins in his history. The first, in 2001, a positive test for amphetamines, would have led to a two-year ban; Gatlin proved, though, that since childhood he had been taking meds for attention deficit disorder. Then he served a four-year ban, from 2006 to 2010 for a failed test for testosterone — which Gatlin has claimed was due to a massage therapist, Chris Whetstine, who rubbed the cream onto his legs without his knowledge.
This has always struck some as the kind of story that would make for an excellent subject for cross-examination under oath in federal court.
Meanwhile, as the South African scientist Ross Tucker pointed out in an excellent column, Gatlin has to confront “three strikes” in a “world of unprecedented skepticism — he is a former doper, dominating a historically doped event, while running faster than his previously doped self.”
At the same time, it’s also the case that the doping rules are what they are. Gatlin gets to run again.
Also, and particularly in the United States, everyone gets a second chance.
Since the days of the Pilgrims, that is the narrative of our nation. All you history majors: you can look it up. Everyone gets a second chance.
By now, the rules, as even Gatlin himself understands, because he articulated them after Saturday’s race, are quite simple and elegant. You apologize in public, owning what you did, and we all move on.
Gay, for instance, recently served a one-year ban. At the Relays, he apologized. He won Saturday’s 100 in 9.88. (Gatlin did not run the 100 here.)
“You know," Gatlin said, referring to Gay, "I mean, what more can you do? He came out and he publicly apologized for his incident. You know, he asked for forgiveness [from] his fans and his teammates, which is us. You know, what more can you do? He gave back his [2012 Olympic] medal. He gave back money. He’s back in the sport, working hard, just to feed his family, like anybody else in the sport.
“So, you know, I can’t do nothing but forgive him … because I have to focus on my race and my aspects and try to get on the podium myself.”
All of which makes the sustained back-and-forth that erupted at Friday’s pre-race news conference all the more difficult to comprehend.
First it was Gatlin and Jean Denis Coquard of the French newspaper L’Equipe.
The reporter asked Gatlin about a study that asked whether he could benefit — even if he was clean now — about the long-term benefit of steroids:
“I think it’s ridiculous. My situation was 2006. That was a decade ago. If anybody says that can happen a whole decade later, they need to go and see what’s happening in the medical world. Don’t come to me with that, you know. I have been in the sport, I have been injured since then, I have been out of the sport, now I am back in the sport and I am running very well, a lot of people have also been in the same situation I have, so those are the people you need to go ask those questions to.”
Then came a question — referenced in Tucker’s blog as well — about the possibility, suggested in a study on mice, that the positive effects of doping can linger long after doping ends.
Gatlin: “I don’t understand why you would match a laboratory mouse to a human being. That’s unfathomable to me. I don’t understand that. So that’s OK.”
A couple moments later, Weldon Johnson of LetsRun.com entered the fray.
Johnson wanted to ask the same question he had at the Relays: “I asked a question to you and Tyson …”
Gatlin, knowing full well what the question was — how do you assure people you are competing clean? — interrupted, saying, “I think Tyson covered that question,” meaning with the apology.
“I wanted to see if you would answer it.”
“He answered all the questions.”
“I think a lot of people would have more like — you haven’t really come clean about what happened in 2006 …
“There’s no comments. There’s no more comments. There’s no more comments. Do you have a question?” Gatlin pointed to his left. “I said everything I had to say on that. There’s no comment. You can read all the articles.”
“Will you admit to taking performance-enhancing drugs?”
By now the two were talking just not at but over each other.
“There’s no admitting to it. There’s articles. I had the articles. There’s no admitting to it. You can go back and read it. If you’re a history major, you can go back in the archives, go read those articles …
“So you still stick to the same story, that you’re the one guy …”
“Why do I need to change it? What is there to change?”
“That Chris Whetstine is the one who …”
“What does there need to be to change? Go ask Chris Whetstine?”
“He lives here, right?”
“I don’t know. Does he? You’re the reporter.”
“I’m trying to find out.”
“OK, go do that then. Until then, I’m going to answer these questions over here.” Again, Gatlin pointed to his left.
Johnson, undeterred, tried a new tack, referring to Trevor Graham, the coach implicated in the BALCO scandal: “Did you see anyone else in Trevor’s group doping?”
“… I don’t know anybody in those situations.”
“Do you understand how some of the public might be …”
Again, Gatlin interrupted: “Until then, I’m going to deal with the 200 meters in the Prefontaine.”
“I get that. And it’s amazing what you’ve done after four years off. But …”
“Well, if you get that, then why are you asking these questions that happened a decade ago? You’re not a history major, are you?”
Johnson: “… Because a lot of people don’t believe your story.”
Gatlin: “Are you a history major?
Johnson: “I was a history major, actually,” a 1996 Yale graduate whose thesis, “Female Labor Force Participation in 1880,” won the Charles Heber Dickerman Memorial Prize, awarded to one or more seniors presenting the best departmental essay.
Gatlin, who obviously had no knowledge of any such thing: “Good. Really? Good. Because maybe you should go do that, in a museum, or something. Because I am running track and field today. And tomorrow. And the next day after that. Which is the future. That’s why I’m here.”
At that, he turned around to the rest of the ladies and gentlemen of the press, and said, “Any questions? Any more?”
The Pre — with due respect to organizers of the other Diamond League meet in a few weeks in New York — is the premier international track meet in the United States. Gatlin, and his entourage, have to know coming in that he is going to get these kinds of questions. It’s not just L’Equipe that was here. The BBC was, too. And others.
How hard is it to be patient and polite and say, “I understand everyone’s curiosity but I ask for your understanding and patience. I have moved on and I hope you will, too.”
Or, better yet, to do some deep soul-searching and do what Gay did in the Bahamas.
What a good number of people close to the sport really want from Gatlin is a full accounting. There is a sense — and of course this is going to be hard for him to confront — that the truth remains elusive. That’s why there is such restlessness.
What’s difficult to comprehend, meanwhile, is that Gatlin is surrounded by good people. His agent, Renaldo Nehemiah, and his coach, Dennis Mitchell, are stand-up guys. If you have only a glancing knowledge of the sport, particularly in regard to Mitchell, you might not believe this is the case. But it is so.
Winning Saturday seemed a salve. At least for a while.
“I love the fans,” Gatlin said after the race. “I love that the fans love to see a race. Not just a Justin Gatlin race but just to see track and field, you know. We are not the most popular sport in the U.S. so to see the stands packed out here, you want to give back as much as you can to these fans. They come out to see a race that has action for nine seconds or 19 seconds.
“So a lot of people think, OK, they’re sitting on the stands or they’re sitting courtside for two hours or four quarters. Ours is over really quickly. So you want to give them something.”
He also said, “These fans, this is the home of Prefontaine. He’s a distance runner at the best. For them to be excited to see a sprint race, you know, these are true fans and I’m glad to be able to run out here for these fans every year.”