He May Be the World’s Fastest Man, but Gatlin Can’t Escape Skeptics

By Courtesy of The Indianapolis Star By Bob Kravitz
Updated: June 26, 2006
His name is Justin Gatlin.
Justin Gatlin

Justin Gatlin

Currently, he is one of the two fastest men on the face of the earth, at least in the not-being-chased-by-a-lion category. And he wants you to believe that he and all his post-BALCO generation track-and-field athletes, folks like Lauryn Williams, Allyson Felix and Jeremy Wariner, are cleaner than Ving Rhames’ pate.
“When we came on the scene in 2003, when we were babies, that was a dark age,” Gatlin said earlier this week at the AT&T USA Track and Field Championships. “The first questions we were asked was, ‘So, what do you think about this latest drug scandal?’ Now we talk about how we can make things better for the sport and how we can make it better for the people who come in behind us.
“We want to make a name for ourselves in a positive way.”
Do you believe him? Do you believe anybody anymore?
I want to believe, especially after Gatlin, blowing away the field Friday at the end of a long day of qualifying, sliced almost casually through a headwind and ran a winning time of 9.93 seconds in the 100 meters.
In today’s America, the concept of the clean athlete is not an easy sell, no matter how many times Gatlin is tested.
Barry Bonds has always tested clean. Marion Jones, who ushered in her comeback Friday with a victory in the 100 meters, has been accused of doping despite having never tested positive. Lance Armstrong, the cycling legend who Friday was again accused by old friends of admitting to a doping regimen, has never tested positive.
Everybody says they’re clean.
Only some of them are telling the truth.
Gatlin, an engaging soul who emerged as an international star during the Athens Games, talks a phenomenally good game, and given his slow but steady progress as a world-class sprinter, most of the suspicions have been muted.
And yet, he gives you some reason to wonder. Gatlin, you see, is coached by Trevor Graham, who has a long history of training athletes who have turned out to be drug cheats.
“I’m not stupid,” Gatlin said earlier in the week. “I know why I get it (tested) more. It’s because of the people I train with and the people who train me.”
He knows people are waiting for him to fail. We are conditioned to seeing our brightest stars fall from the sky.
“I’m very vulnerable because of the people I have within my circle,” Gatlin said. “I’m always walking on eggshells. I’ve become pretty paranoid. About what I take, what I eat, who handles my food. I’m always watching my back.”
So are most of Gatlin’s opponents these days.
Did you see his performance in Doha, Qatar, back on May 12? About halfway through the race, it was as if he was being propelled by a small jet engine. He ran a 9.76 that day. Five days later, it was determined that a timing mistake had been made, and the time was rounded up to 9.77 — good enough to share the world record with Jamaican Asafa Powell.
“Yeah, I was angry,” Gatlin said. “It shouldn’t have happened in that fashion. Get it done in two days. But five days? That’s a full business week. Since it happened, though, it’s really motivated me to set this record again. I’ve watched tape of that race (in Doha) and I know I could have run faster. Think about it, a half-inch, and that’s the difference between a 9.8 and a 9.7.”
Since arriving in Indianapolis earlier this week, Gatlin has been looking at the fast track at IUPUI — known as the “Magic Carpet” — and dreaming of closing that half-inch gap and becoming sole owner of the record.
Come Friday night, though, his chances were diminished. One day earlier, violent weather cancelled a qualifying heat, forcing Gatlin to run three times Friday. That’s a lot of mileage, even for a sprinter.
Later, after a dominant 9.93 against the wind, Gatlin apologized for failing to set the world record.
“Three runs in one day; that’s Michael Johnson stuff,” he said. “But I’m getting there.”
There are track-and-field events and world records, but none resonate quite like the men’s 100 meters. It’s much like being boxing’s heavyweight champion; in track, the title of World’s Fastest Human holds a special cachet.
“A race like the 200, it’s a chess match,” Gatlin said. “But the 100, it’s all about testosterone and adrenaline and who has the biggest heart. You just have to explode.”
In those 10 or fewer seconds, Gatlin says it’s as if he’s alone on the planet. The world is rendered soundless, the periphery becomes blurred, and before his eyes, a slim, black tunnel unfolds between himself and the finish line.
“All I’m thinking about is ‘Faster, faster,’ ” Gatlin said. “It’s totally instinctual. I lace up my shoes and, thinking like Rambo, like, ‘What can I do to stand out from everybody else?’ It’s all inside.”
You hope that’s all that propels Gatlin, and this new post-BALCO generation of track athletes. You hope like crazy. But you’re smart enough to have doubts.