Justin Gatlin: an all-time tale of redemption and respect

LONDON — Act II of the morality play shall now commence, and if there is justice in this world, let it rain Justin Gatlin’s way. He is deserving, more than deserving, of your appreciation and, more, your respect.

A few days ago, before the start of these 2017 IAAF world championships, Usain Bolt had said he was both “unbeatable” and “unstoppable,” adding, “Without a doubt. If I show up at a championship, you know that I’m ready to go.”

Without a doubt, the track and field establishment wanted Bolt — king of the scene, a “genius,” according to IAAF president Sebastian Coe — to win Saturday night’s 100 meters, Bolt’s last hurrah, the final competitive 100 the greatest sprinter humankind has ever seen had said he intended to run.

 Justin Gatlin, left, at the finish line // Getty Images

Justin Gatlin, left, at the finish line // Getty Images

Here is the thing:

The world waits for no one, not even Usain Bolt. No one is unbeatable. No one is unstoppable. The one guy Bolt had for years known would show up ready to go at a championship — the guy his coach, Glen Mills, had warned him about, and repeatedly — showed up, and big time.


Thirteen years after winning the Olympic 100 meters in Athens, Gatlin wrote one of the most compelling chapters in the lore of American sports redemption, winning the 2017 world championship men’s 100 in a captivating 9.92 seconds.

 The view from the infield // Getty Images

The view from the infield // Getty Images

Bolt took third, in 9.95.

Christian Coleman, the 21-year-old NCAA champion, got second in 9.94, making it a 1-2 U.S. finish.

There's a big secret behind Saturday’s race:

Bolt himself has long accorded max respect to Gatlin. So maybe, world, now, you, too.

Because Gatlin is the one guy who has pushed Bolt. Mills knows this. Bolt, too. Bolt has said as much to Gatlin.

All of this, to be clear, is a two-way street.

This is what excellence in your craft — what respect — is all about.

 Just after the finish line // Getty Images

Just after the finish line // Getty Images

This, now, is what Gatlin deserves from everyone. Respect, and appreciation for getting back to the top after being down.

Everyone stumbles. Everyone. If you say you haven’t had twists and turns in your life, lessons from which you’ve learned and grown, you’re a flat-out liar.

“I told him congratulations,” Bolt said after the race, referring to Gatlin. “He deserved it.”

For his part, Gatlin, long demonized by many in and out of track and field — and so unfairly — struck just the right tone afterward. As he has been many times in defeat to Bolt, he was gracious in victory:

 Thirteen years after winning Olympic gold in the 100 // Getty Images

Thirteen years after winning Olympic gold in the 100 // Getty Images

“Bolt is an electrifying character who has run sizzling times, mind-blowing times. Throughout the years, he has always kept it classy. He has always kept excitement in the sport. He has inspired me to be a stronger, faster competitor. I have only wished every year to be, you know, his top rival, even coming back into the sport.

“We have grown so much respect for each other throughout the years. I think a lot of people in the media think we have this bitter rivalry where we hate each other. It’s actually exactly the opposite. We joke around. We’ve actually gone to parties together. We just keep it low key. It’s a gentleman’s rivalry. And I have nothing but respect for him.”

The race Saturday was set up to stamp an exclamation point on Bolt’s extraordinary career.

Eight Olympic gold medals (had been nine, until 4x100 relay teammate Nesta Carter’s disqualification for doping) — in the 100, 200 and relay.

Coming into Saturday, 11 world championship golds (the only miss a false start in the 100 at the 2011 worlds in Daegu, South Korea).

 Mutual respect // Getty Images

Mutual respect // Getty Images

A stash of world records, including 9.58 in the 100 and, truly, more remarkable, 19.19 in the 200.

All this, and Bolt’s joyfulness, have combined over the years to make him all but irresistible to many.

What to pick?

The costumed mascot here (“Hero the Hedgehog”) who untied Bolt’s laces after Friday night’s prelim run. The Norwegian reporter who at a news conference at last year’s Rio Olympics recited a rap he had composed in Bolt’s honor.

The pics of Bolt with the Swedish women’s handball team after he won the 100 in London five years ago. The Chicken McNugget diet from the 2008 Beijing Olympics, purportedly.

 Bolt’s shoes say ‘Fastest’ and ‘Forever’ but getting out of those blocks, always a challenge, proved problematic // Getty Images

Bolt’s shoes say ‘Fastest’ and ‘Forever’ but getting out of those blocks, always a challenge, proved problematic // Getty Images

Asked at a separate news conference if Bolt ought to consider Hollywood, Coe said he thought that a capital idea. The current International Olympic Committee president, Thomas Bach, said here of Bolt, “He is a living legend.”

Which is of course the word that Bolt himself playfully uses to describe himself.

Now the disclaimer:

Of the 30 fastest times in the 100, only nine were run by an athlete without any sort of doping irregularity. All nine: Bolt.

Bolt has never tested positive. This proves that he has never tested positive.

It has been Gatlin’s fate to have had two exchanges with the doping authorities.

The first came when he was 19, in 2001, when he was in college at Tennessee, and tagged for Adderall, which he was assuredly not hiding. The authorities explicitly said at the time that Gatlin “certainly is not a doper.”

After that first test, Gatlin went on to Olympic gold. Then at the 2005 Helsinki world championships, double gold in the 100 and 200.

Then came the second episode, in 2006, which is by now 11 long years ago. Gatlin tested positive for testosterone. No one knows exactly what happened or, at the least, has come forward to explain. Gatlin never intentionally tried to cheat, a voluminous record on file in federal court in Florida makes clear.

Nonetheless, Gatlin was ordered to take four years off.

Because these sorts of matters don’t easily lend themselves to nuanced tellings, the press — and in particular, the British press — took to calling Gatlin a “two-time doper.”

Which is not even remotely fair.

This unfairness reached its crescendo two years ago, at the 2015 Beijing worlds. Coming into the meet, Gatlin was clearly that year's leader. In the race itself, as the two neared the finish line, Gatlin stumbled. Bolt held on for the win, 9.79, Gatlin crossing in 9.8.

This was but one classic headline in the aftermath:

Good conquers evil: Usain Bolt narrowly outruns Justin Gatlin for 100m title”

This season, Gatlin struggled early on with injuries. Bolt, meanwhile, went under 10 in one of three starts, ranked but seventh in the world in the 100.

That said, 2017 had been a slow year.

Coleman had been the only guy this year to break 9.9, going 9.82 in June on a fast track, Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon, at the NCAA championships.

At the U.S. nationals in Sacramento a couple weeks later, Gatlin ran a 9.95, Coleman 9.98.

Thus the stage was set.

In Friday night’s preliminaries, when Gatlin was introduced, the crowd booed -- the good vs. evil theme picked up from Beijing to London, and a capacity crowd of some 55,000.

When Gatlin crossed the finish line in the prelims, in 10.05 — more boos.

After that race, he said, “I feel great.” This was in line with an interview before the meet he had given to Reuters — to a correspondent he has known and trusted for years — in which he said, “It is back to the old Justin, like 2004, where I’m with the pack and pull away at the finish line. That’s how I won my [Athens 2004] gold.”

Few people outside a knowing inner circle paid serious attention. The spotlight was trained furiously on Bolt — who is a notoriously slow starter and got off, even by his standards, to an awful start, but the willing did not want to believe what was right in front of their eyes.

Gatlin ran in the first of Saturday’s three semis. More boos as he qualified easily for the finals.

Yohan Blake, the Jamaican who won those 2011 worlds 100 when Bolt was DQ’d amid that false start, the thing that had since triggered Bolt’s cautious patterns out of the blocks, won the second semi in 10.04.

The third semi:

Coleman — who had won the first of Friday’s six heats — ran 9.97 for the win, looking over at Bolt from Lane 4 with something approaching cool disdain as he crossed the line.

Bolt, off to his usual slow start, gained on Coleman down the stretch — no surprise — and looked to his left for several of his final strides as if to ask, dude, what is up? He finished in 9.98.

This was assuredly no replay of the 200 semifinal looky-loo bromance in Rio last year between Canada’s Andre de Grasse and Bolt. This was a staredown.

Game on.

For the final, Coleman drew Lane 5, Bolt 4. Blake and Gatlin were on the outside, in 7 and 8.

As the runners were announced for the final, the crowd roared for Bolt.

For Gatlin — more boos.

“It’s time,” the announcer said. “It ends here.”

So it did, 9.92 seconds later — the time it took for Justin Gatlin to run 100 meters faster than anybody else on a Saturday night in Olympic Stadium.

“Usain Bolt!” the crowd cheered.

“You are so loved,” the announcer told Bolt on the big screen.

He ignored Gatlin, who had fallen to his knees after crossing the line, then gotten up and — American flag wrapped around him — ran to meet family and friends.

“Got it done,” his longtime coach, Dennis Mitchell, said later.

 Justin Gatlin’s parents, Willie and Jeanette, under Olympic Stadium late Saturday

Justin Gatlin’s parents, Willie and Jeanette, under Olympic Stadium late Saturday

“God be the glory,” Jeanette Gatlin, Justin’s mother, said, adding, “What goes around comes around.”

Gatlin’s agent, Renaldo Nehemiah, said, “Tonight was the culmination of a long journey — proving that the only obstacle is the track itself.”

Bolt was doomed by his start. Typically, he makes up enough ground in the last 50 meters to overcome whatever happens out of the blocks. Not, as he acknowledged afterward, this time.

To be clear:

Bolt didn’t not win. Gatlin defeated him. And for many reasons.

Gatlin won in part because he ran just like he said he was running -- he pulled away, like he did all those years back in Athens, at the finish line.

He won, too, because of that loss in Beijing two summers ago.

“What you guys would call losses, losses, losses,” he told reporters, smiling, “I would call lessons, lessons, lessons.”

In Beijing, Gatlin was too caught up in the moment — and, he said, running with too much to prove, maybe to and for himself. Here, he said, he was relaxed, feeling the moment, feeling the support of his family, friends, teammates — and running for and with them.

Lane 8 helped. For sure. “All the way out there,” he said with a smile.

The boos? He had the maturity, the calm, the composure to go about his business. As Nehemiah said, this had indeed been a journey of many years.

And, as well, to understand that the boos were a mark of respect. Why boo someone who wasn’t a credible threat to win? As Gatlin pointed out, when he came back to the sport, he wasn’t getting boos for a long time — even here in 2012, when he took bronze in the 100.

“Regardless of boos,” Gatlin said, “I still heard cheers.”

He deserves them.