LONDON, United Kingdom, Aug 2 – Justin Gatlin has become increasingly irritated at being labelled the dope cheat contrasting with Usain Bolt’s superhero image in the sprinting world, but he can set that aside by spoiling the latter’s farewell at the world athletics championships.
The 35-year-old American — who last year became the oldest man to win a 100m Olympic medal when he took silver behind his nemesis Bolt — gets one last go at the Jamaican legend when the world championships get underway in London on Friday.
It will be asking a lot of Gatlin — who served a four-year ban reduced from eight for doping from 2006-2010 — to achieve that having only beaten Bolt once in nine previous meetings over the shorter sprint distance, and that was four years ago in Rome.
There exists a mutual respect between the two old rivals to the extent the Jamaican was horrified by the booing and jeering of the American prior to the 100m final in Rio last year, and then again at the medal ceremony.
“I personally think he’s a great athlete,” said Bolt after Rio.
“He shows up and pushes you to run fast and be at your best at all times.”
Gatlin too is gushing about Bolt, whose crowd-pleasing antics have gilded his image as the good guy whilst the American has often been cast as a pantomime villain.
“I have the utmost respect for Usain,” said Gatlin.
“Away from the track, he’s a great guy, he’s a cool guy, there is no rivalry between us. There is no bad blood. I’m a competitor, he’s a competitor and he has pushed me to be the athlete that I am today.”
Gatlin — who has been one of the most tested athletes in sport since his return from the ban — showed his class in adding Olympic bronze (2012) and silver in the 100m to go with the gold he won in the pre-Bolt era in Athens in 2004, when he also took bronze in the 200m.
He has the full house of Olympic 100m medals — plus a plethora of world medals including the 100m and 200m golds from 2005 — but whether it measures up to what he could have won, had he not fallen foul of the dope testers when he was a member of the now disgraced Trevor Graham stable, is a moot point.
– ‘I was too angry’ –
The four years in the wilderness saw him try and fail three times to make it with an NFL team, and having lost his lucrative sponsorship deals, he had to sell his house and live in more spartan surroundings.
On his return to the track there was a lot of anger stored up — no longer the sense of fun that as a child had seen him dress up as Batman and jump on his parents’ bed with them sound asleep — but he addressed the issue just as he had his Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD).
Ironically, as Gatlin told the New York Times last year, he saw himself still as Batman but in his role as ‘a vigilante’.
“I was too angry; it was deteriorating my character,” he told the newspaper.
“I didn’t like who I had become.”
Intense chats with a priest brought peace and seemingly resolved that issue, but it has not lessened his hunger for success on the track.
Although he has hinted he might try and push his ageing legs and body to try and make the Tokyo Olympics in 2020, realistically London may represent the last chance to be a genuine contender at a major championships — and deliver a title for his demanding seven-year-old son Jace.
“I mean, if anything, it makes me nervous. Your son telling you, ‘you better win’,” he told US Magazine last year.
“If anyone else in the crowd is like, ‘You better win,’ I’m like, ‘I’m going to try.’ That’s why I’m here; I’m trying. But if my son says that, I’m trying to move mountains.”