Justin Gatlin won the Olympic 100 metres gold at the 2004 Athens Games — four years before a Jamaican named Usain Bolt would take the world by storm and change track and field history in the course of just eight years.
But two years before Bolt’s Beijing Olympic heroics, Gatlin’s life had turned upside down.
An eight-year doping ban in 2006 threatened to end the American’s career, even compelling him to plan a new start as an NFL player.
But Gatlin had a new lease of life after his ban was reduced to four years by an arbitration panel.
Four years is still a long time in an athlete’s life as it robbed him of his prime.
His road to redemption was fraught with myriad obstacles, one of which was own his inflated size.
Gatlin was overweight when he returned to the track in 2010 and clocked inauspicious times in his comeback events, raising serious questions over his ability to rediscover the speed that made him the world’s greatest sprinter in the pre-Bolt era.
But eventually, he found his second wind and became a formidable force once again, giving younger rivals a run for their money and winning the 100m bronze and silver at the 2012 London and 2016 Rio Olympic Games.
Then remarkably, at the ripe old age of 35, Gatlin beat Christian Coleman and Bolt for the 100 metres gold at the 2017 World Championships, robbing the iconic Jamaican of a golden swansong.
Two years later, Gatlin still had gas in the tank to take home the 4x100 meters relay gold and the 100m silver at the 2019 Doha World Championships.
Finally in February this year, Gatlin decided to hang up his boots at the age of 40, less than a year after he failed in his bid to become the oldest winner of an Olympic 100m medal in Tokyo.
But the enduring beauty of this decorated American sprinter was his endurance.
The Brooklyn-born star, who was recently in India as the brand ambassador of the TCS 10K Run in Bangalore, still feels the urge to hit the track when he sees young athletes run.
During an exclusive interview with the Khaleej Times, Gatlin opened up on how he delivered age-defying performances and how the sport can fill the void left behind by Bolt’s retirement.
Q. You have travelled to many countries in your glorious career. But this was your first time in India. How was the experience?
Well, I was prepared for a higher experience, a warmer experience. It was supposed to be very warm and humid, so I got a lot of T-shirts and shorts so I could acclimate very well. But actually, it was really nice, cool and perfect weather. The (Indian) food is amazing. I haven’t had a dish that I did not like and the people had been very welcoming.
Q. You are the brand ambassador of the TCS 10K Run in Bangalore, which drew a lot of elite athletes from all over the world. But did you get a chance to speak to local athletes, the young ones?
Yeah, I was able to interact with some of the local athletes. I actually saw some youth athletes too who were training there at the track. I was itching to get out there to do so a couple of practice drives with them. But the time was crunched. I had to do the press conference and get back and work on some other interviews. I loved the fact that even the people who were working at the event, some of them were going to participate in the run as well, that showed you how invested they were.
Q. What has been always intriguing for the average sports fan is how the US, Canada, the UK and, of course, Jamaica, thanks to Usain Bolt, have dominated the track and field events, especially the 100m, at the Olympics and the world championships. But when you get a chance to interact with athletes that come from countries, especially the Asian countries, that don’t have a big history – or any history for that matter – of winning track and field medals at the highest level, what kind of advice do you give them?
Seek knowledge. Sprinting isn’t just in certain nations. The fact that there’s knowledge there to help people who are talented become unique sprinters, that can be done anywhere around the world, you know, so it’s about seeking knowledge and by doing so, just, for example, becoming a student of the game, making sure that you are learning your craft. You’re learning from others and you’re watching YouTube or videos to see how to do it correctly. You know, and you’re finding coaches or people or mentors who can be able to answer certain questions and push you to the next level.
Q. There was a surprise result at the Olympics in Tokyo where Italy’s Lamont Marcell Jacobs won the men’s 100m gold. So now that the world champion Christian Coleman is back from his doping ban, what level of competition do you expect to see going ahead? Who has the edge?
Well, I mean, we are in a very rare situation where we’re watching a changing of guards. So those athletes like myself, Tyson (Gray) Yohan (Blake), Usain (Bolt) these athletes are segueing out of the sport. And now, you know, these younger athletes who are very talented and they’re running times as comparable to what we’ve done in our in our career. But it’s a lot more of them now. If you look at the Olympic lineup last year, I don’t think anybody really had a 100% idea who would win, or not even 90% idea would win. So that means that they’re coming out, guns are blazing, and these guys are trying to take the top spot, so that’s what makes it exciting. The edge I mean, if you look at it on paper, then obviously you have to give it to Jacobs because he is the defending Olympic champion. And he is also the World Indoor champion right now. So those credentials have to stand out. But once again, there are so many young underdogs who are jockeying for positions. So today might be Jacob’s day, but will tomorrow be his? It’s all about consistency.
Q. Usain Bolt’s retirement left such a big void in athletics, obviously he was such a towering figure. It’s almost like the day when there would be no Tiger Woods in golf, no Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic in tennis and, for that matter, no Ronaldo or Messi in football. Every sport needs these superstars, the iconic figures. So how does a sport cope with the gap left behind by an absolute superstar?
That’s the job of every sport to be able to nurture and be able to kind of lift up and raise the young athletes who are trying to get in those positions. Sometimes the next star is somebody we’d never even heard of. And sometimes the next star is an athlete that we have heard of and they just never got the opportunity to be able to step into the limelight. Now the opportunity is there for them. So being more diligent as a sport, realising that a star is being born or stars being made, and focusing on that, I think that we’ll be able to enjoy as the spectators way more.
Q. Looking back at your own career, you won everything that was there to be won. Gold at the Olympics and the World Championships (both outdoors and indoors). You competed with Bolt, the greatest sprinter of all time. But what is truly fascinating is that after all the setbacks, you continued to compete and win medals at the highest level until your late 30s. What kept you going?
I didn’t look at my career in its totality. I didn’t say, ‘Okay, I’m gonna run for the next 10 years’. You know, I took it year by year, so 12 months. I looked at how I was going to train for that season. I looked at what I needed to work on, on what I needed to perfect to be the complete athlete I needed to be that season. And then once that season was over, I worry about the next season, the next season after that. So I did not think the way people normally think of professional athletes or Olympic athletes, like having four years or two years plan. I really took it month by month or year by year.
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