Justin Gatlin has one last shot at redemption

The 100-meter final at last year’s track and field World Championships was labeled the battle between "good and evil."

In Lane 5 Usain Bolt, the so-called savior of the sport, started two lanes over from Justin Gatlin, who’s twice tested positive for PEDs. Gatlin, who seems to represent everything wrong with the sport, was in line to be the “least popular 100m world champion ever,” the Guardian’s Owen Gibson wrote.

At 33 years old, Gatlin had run five of the six fastest 100m times in 2015, but he carried an asterisk around his neck like an albatross. Just before the race started, the sprinters crouched low. On air, a BBC pundit said Usain Bolt had to win, and prevent Gatlin from doing so, to “save the sport.”

Gatlin, of course, heard the chatter. As he pressed against the starting blocks he tried to keep his focus linear, but he knew the faster he ran, the more criticism he would face.

The gun blasted and Gatlin rose up in the lead. Sprinting is life’s great judge. Every little decision and personality trait, from childhood until the finish line, is dissected into hundredths of seconds. Your mistakes become your crucible. At meter 50, Bolt and Gatlin were even. “How can a man his age run this fast?” Gatlin, though, felt he was being singled out for a recent scourge of PED use that’s divided the track and field community (in the World Championships race, four of the nine finalists had been suspended at one point in their careers). Others didn’t believe Gatlin should be in the field. “If you test positive you (should be) banned for life,” Tyree Washington, an American and 2003 400m World Champion, said in an interview.

Track and field is complicated, and Gatlin’s story even more so. One of the great American sprinters of his, or any, generation, Gatlin is desperately trying to run away from a past that shadows his every stride.

“I’m not a bad guy. I don’t want to be perceived that way,” he says. “I want to be a runner, just like anyone else is a runner.”

He knows that might be impossible, and in the last 10 meters in Beijing, he stumbled ever so slightly, and “good” prevailed by .01 seconds — the sport saved, for now.

Since that moment, the last 12 months have been one long warm-up for this weekend’s rematch at the Rio Olympics — the most anticipated race for years. A career-defining one for Gatlin, and a referendum on the state of track and field.

*****

In an Orlando suburb, just off the highway this past April, Gatlin is examining an IHOP menu. He leans back in the booth as the waitress comes by with a notepad. “I’ll take the steak,” he says, then turns with a smile. “It’s cheat day.” He’s engaging, and at times can be thoughtful and self-reflective, then, as if a switch has been turned, he’s suddenly guarded. He wants the public to see him as more than a PED punchline, but he knows that questions about his drug suspensions are inevitably coming. Just two weeks before, a TV crew from Europe set up cameras in his living room. When the interviewer steered the questions toward steroids, Gatlin stood up and kicked the crew out of his house. “I felt like they’re trying to make me the poster child for suspension,” he says. “They weren’t even asking questions about myself, they were asking about everything going on and the corruption in track and field. I’m like ‘Dude! I don’t see you asking Allyson Felix or Usain Bolt these questions.’”

Growing up in Pensacola, Florida, track had almost been an afterthought. In high school he dreamed of playing free safety in the NFL, but frustrated by his lack of playing time, one day he walked into his coach’s office and handed back his helmet.

“I remember my coach was like, ’You’re gonna be sorry that you quit football.’ And I was like, ’No, you’re gonna be sorry that I quit,’” he says.

Diagnosed with ADD, he kept himself busy by playing piano, saxophone or drawing. Without football he needed another outlet and decided he’d try track. “His father and I laughed at him,” his mother Jeanette says. “Justin doesn’t do anything in a hurry. He talks slow, he walks slow. ‘OK, if that’s what you want to do, give it a shot.’”

Gatlin, though, was a natural. Within months he was already drawing interest from the top SEC programs. He picked Tennessee and won six NCAA titles in two years. His athleticism became so renowned that one afternoon most of the football players skipped weight training to admire Gatlin’s vertical jump test. “Those guys were high-fiving each time it was Justin’s turn, like ’Did you see that?’” former Tennessee track coach Vince Anderson says.

With success came difficult decisions. While still a sophomore, he and his mother Jeanette were driving up to New York for a funeral when Gatlin got a call from a man named Trevor Graham, a former Jamaican sprinter and a track coach associated with Nike, who said, according to Jeanette, he wanted to offer a contract to Gatlin. Jeanette, wary of outsiders, pulled the phone away from her son and asked why Nike representatives didn’t call instead. “He said, ‘Because they don’t want to appear to solicit athletes out of school,’” she said. “I knew nothing about him, only that he coached the most famous athlete in track and field, Marion Jones.”

Gatlin was seduced by Graham’s pedigree and fast-talking way. From the beginning their partnership seemed to work. “There was never a doubt Justin was a phenom,” his manager and former world record holder in the 110m hurdles, Renaldo Nehemiah, says.

The next three years were a blur. Gatlin didn’t run in the 2003 World Championships and finished second in the U.S. Olympic trials in 2004, then shocked the world by winning gold in Athens later that year. “I achieved the impossible,” Gatlin says. Overnight he was celebrity, making appearances on Jay Leno’s Tonight Show, and adorning magazine covers.

He then cemented his place as the preeminent sprinter in the world by winning the double — both the 100- and 200-meters — at the World Championships the next year and then tying the 100m world record in May of 2006. So far, it seemed, every life decision had led him directly on a path toward sprinting greatness. Then, just two weeks after tying the world record in Doha, his life imploded.

A friend of his was dealing with a long-term illness and asked if he would help boost the profile of April’s Kansas Relays. As a favor, Gatlin waived his appearance fee — which can sometimes reach six figures — and ran in the 100- and 200-meters. Afterwards he was screened for a random drug test. It was a relative non-event and soon after Gatlin jetted off to Doha.

A few weeks later his parents were at their home in Pensacola when they heard a knock on the front door. They weren’t expecting anyone, and when Jeanette opened the door, she was greeted by a FedEx worker who handed her a certified white envelope. Most of Gatlin’s important mail was sent to his parents’ house, and his mother and father opened the letter.

“I was reading it and I didn’t understand what it was all saying,” Jeanette says. “My husband said this doesn’t look so good. We need to let him know what we got.”

Gatlin, meanwhile, was back from Doha and in his SUV in North Carolina when his phone rang. When his mother read him the letter, his heart stopped. He pulled to the side of the road, turned off the engine and according to later court transcripts, wailed on the other end of the phone, “It’s over, it’s over, it’s — I’m dead, Mommy, I’m dead.”

*****

Dennis Mitchell perches against the railing at the track at Montverde Academy, an expansive athletics-focused high school in the suburbs of Orlando. His stout shoulders and deep guttural voice portray an aura of authority. For the last four years, he’s worked as Gatlin’s coach, along with a group of mostly fringe level athletes, who for the most part, like Gatlin, run with something to prove.

Mitchell was an Army brat, raised by his drill sergeant father. In 1992, he won Olympic gold running the 4X100 relay alongside Carl Lewis. As his career tailed off, looking for a new voice, he started working with a young, up-and-coming track coach named Trevor Graham.

The relationship, however, was short-lived. In 1998, Mitchell failed a drug test and was suspended for elevated testosterone levels. His career was nearing its end anyway, but as he stepped back from track he watched one athlete after another under Graham’s care test positive for steroids.

As the sun beats off the track at Montverde, Mitchell cups his hand over his eyes and looks down as he reflects on his nine months with Graham. “He was the most terrible man in the sport I ever met,” he says. “He’s ruined so many athletes.”

Gatlin had been warned about Graham before the 2004 Olympics. Then the evening after he won gold, revelations were made public that Graham had been the one to anonymously send a syringe to anti-doping authorities that ultimately toppled his former pupil Marion Jones and BALCO. In an instant the spotlight shifted from Gatlin to his coach. “I was enraged,” Nehemiah said.

An emergency meeting was organized in Athens by Nehemiah and Gatlin’s parents. They sat down with Craig Masback, CEO of USA Track and Field, and Nike representatives.

“If the association (between Gatlin and Graham) wasn’t the most positive, then we need to move in a different direction,” Nehemiah announced. But a few months later, nothing had changed, and Gatlin returned to North Carolina to continue training with Graham.

Gatlin celebrates after winning gold in the 100m at the 2004 Athens Olympics. Just two-hundredths of a second separated him from bronze medalist Maurice Greene. Usain Bolt, who turned 18 the day before, didn’t compete in the 100m. (JEFF HAYNES/AFP/Getty Images)

As a pro, so far, Gatlin had been rigorously screened and passed every drug test. But he had a stain on his doping record going back to his sophomore year at Tennessee. Before a meet in 2001, he’d taken Adderall to help focus for a college exam, then tested positive. After an exhaustive investigation, the United States Anti-Doping Agency agreed that Gatlin “did not intend to enhance his performance” but still suspended him six months.  Since he was an amateur the ban had little effect, but when he tested positive for "testosterone or its precursors" after the meet in Kansas in 2006, it was now considered a second doping offense and he was facing a possible lifetime ban. 

“I went through denial, then anger and stress,” Gatlin says. “I remember going to Atlanta for the arbitration and I literally just got sick. My body was so broke down from worry and stress.”

Fighting for his professional life, he put his trust in Graham and followed as his coach proclaimed to the media that Gatlin’s positive test was a result of a masseuse with a grudge — Chris Whetstine, who Graham fired, then rehired — rubbing steroid cream into Gatlin’s legs as retaliation. Meanwhile, as the FBI was concluding the BALCO investigation, they set their sights on Graham. But to make evidence stick, they needed someone on the inside.

“They tapped my phone,” Gatlin says. “I had to basically read scripted questions that were written by the agents and call my coach and basically say certain things to him.”

Gatlin received an eight-year ban, later reduced to four years for cooperation with authorities. Soon, the trial against Graham started, and the state called their star witness — Dennis Mitchell, who described how Graham injected him with human growth hormone when he was a sprinter in the 90’s. “To pull dirt on him, I had to pull dirt on myself,” he says.

In total, 11 sprinters with ties to Trevor Graham have tested positive for PEDs. Graham was convicted of three felonies and banned from coaching for life, but the fallout to those around him was profound.

Mitchell was ostracized from track and field, his coaching license suspended. “I knew if I testified the sport would choose to look at me as a hero or a villain,” he says. “And the sport chose the villain part.” Gatlin, meanwhile, moved back to his parents’ house and went though a prolonged depression.

The two didn’t know it at the time, but they were on a collision course toward a relationship that would help repair their damaged careers.

*****

Gatlin put his track cleats in the back of his closet and bought a place in Atlanta. Most nights he went in search of a party or a few beers to drink away the emptiness. He tried football again, working out for the NFL’s Texans and Buccaneers, but little came of it. Then in 2008, while on his couch watching the Beijing Olympics, he fell in love with track again.

Usain Bolt dominated in the 100- and 200-meter dashes, and his personality was magnetic. “I was inspired,” Gatlin says. After the Games he called Nehemiah and they devised a plan for his return. Two years later he ran his first post-suspension race, at a tiny event in Estonia. He was nervous and unsure of himself. He won against second- or third-tier competition but ran a discouraging 10.24.

“He was a little soft, and overweight,” Nehemiah said. “I had to be his emotional coach, and tell him you have to crawl before you walk.”

The problem was, because of the baggage his name brought, very few meet organizers wanted Gatlin at their events. He travelled to the farther reaches of Northern and Eastern Europe for even a chance to run. “It was like the sport didn’t even acknowledge I existed, like I was never even born,” he says.

He worked with a coach in North Carolina, then another in Florida. But he felt he wasn’t getting the individual attention he needed. At 29 years old, time was slipping away. Then in early 2012 Gatlin was in Orlando and met up with Mitchell, who was now back working with a handful of lower-level sprinters, at a local restaurant. Mitchell, in his boisterous tone, leaned in and told Gatlin, “We gotta talk. Because I think our destinies are meant to be together.”

A few weeks later Gatlin showed up at Montverde Academy. Nehemiah, though, was wary of how it would look if two drug cheats worked together. Ironically, he had been on the drug arbitration panel that heard Mitchell’s initial drug case. “I knew all the ins and outs of it,” he says. “But I was mindful of Dennis.”

Gatlin and Mitchell never spoke of their shared past, but Mitchell understood Gatlin in ways other coaches didn’t. “He likes to please people. At the same time Justin wants to know his purpose in life,” Mitchell said. “He says if you’re going to make me an Olympic champion, I want to see a plan in place. I better be working toward that goal, and you better be working too.”

Mitchell had never had a pupil on Gatlin’s level and initially seemed out of his depth. To compensate he’d come home after practice and read through academic journals or track and field textbooks well into the night. During the early part of Gatlin’s career he had always been the best closer in the business, but his starts were only average at best. Mitchell wanted him to be more of a complete sprinter.

At 30, Gatlin became in 2012 the oldest American to ever win the Olympic trials and set up an Olympic showdown with Bolt. He was back. At least it seemed that way. But Gatlin first learned that the faster he raced, the larger his and Mitchell’s drug-riddled pasts would loom.

“There was this elephant in the room,” Gatlin said. “A lot of athletes have come back after a suspension, and you know, they’ll do a fourth, a fifth, they’re kind of just there, you know? But I was the one that was out there jockeying for first — winning. I think that’s what made people more uncomfortable.”

It wasn’t just that he was winning — Gatlin was running times at his age that seemed unfathomable. Some research suggests steroid use can have long-term effects, and the questions came more often and more pointed. “A lot of people are suspicious,” track and field journalist Weldon Johnson says. “Some people look at what he did in the past and who he’s associated with. It doesn’t mean he’s cheating, but it’s natural to be suspicious.”

Gatlin counters that he’s skipped some of the natural “wear and tear” that his competitors have dealt with. “When I came back, it felt like I was stuck in time,” he says. “Physically, my body was the body of like a 25-, or 26-year-old.” But perhaps, more than anything, Gatlin was running angry, a trait that Mitchell saw as useful. Since Mitchell couldn’t shield Gatlin from the newspaper articles and online comments, he knew if he could get Gatlin to direct his anger in a straight line, he would have a chance of defeating Bolt and winning his crown.

“Just focus on those nine seconds,” Mitchell would say.

Gatlin improved his starts and finished third to Bolt and Yohan Blake in the 2012 Olympics, then second to Bolt at the 2013 World Championships. He tried to convince himself that he had an advantage over all of Bolt’s other competitors, who had been dealing with the psychological scars of Bolt’s dominance. “I witnessed his rise like any other person in the audience witnessing it, you know? I didn’t feel a blow to my ego,” he says.

But, no matter how fast Gatlin ran, even when he was running personal bests, and the top times of the year, he couldn’t catch up to Bolt. It began to wear on him. If they were classical musicians, Bolt was Mozart, carefree and blessed with genius-level ability. Gatlin was his foil — his Salieri — sometimes bitter, but relentless as he worked to reach the levels of Bolt. In the months before the 2015 World Championships, Gatlin won 29 straight races, but his success only added kindle to the simmering disdain in track and field.

Although he’d been tested dozens of times, including during his suspension, and come up clean every time since 2006, the questions about his value to the sport lingered. Now it was no longer just from the media. Other sprinters and former champions piled public ridicule on him. One of his heroes, American Olympic champion Michael Johnson, said, “This is all Justin’s fault. … He has done nothing — zero — to engender himself back into the public.” Then just before the race at the 2015 World Championships, Lord Sebastian Coe, the legendary miler, said he would be “queasy” if Gatlin won.

At the finish line, Gatlin leaned forward as far as he could, then looked up to see he’d lost by the slightest of margins — a single hundredth of a second. As Bolt took a victory lap, you couldn’t help but feel Gatlin had already been engulfed in the flames. With an American flag draped over his shoulders, he was interviewed by NBC Sports after the race. “I went out there and gave it my all. I’m happy …” His voice trailed and his eyes began to water.

Back from suspension but still in figurative exile, Gatlin was forced to race in far-flung places early in his comeback bid. Here, he runs in Estonia in 2010. (Joosep Martinson/Getty Images)

Bolt also got the better of Gatlin in the 200m at the 2015 World Championships. Gatlin took the silver there too. (FRANCK FIFE/AFP/Getty Images)

In the press room a short time later, Gatlin fielded questions alongside Bolt. One journalist stood up and asked him how he felt that other athletes had indicated that Bolt’s win was good for the future of the sport. Gatlin said only that he was “thankful,” three straight times. The journalists, then athletes, cleared out and Gatlin stayed in the room, deep in his own thoughts. Nehemiah saw him alone and came over and put his arm around him.

“It’s OK,” Nehemiah told him, “I know you have feelings.” Gatlin leaned his head onto Nehemiah’s shoulder and the tears flooded out.

*****

After last year’s World Championships, there were calls for Gatlin to be more open about the failed drug test. To this point, he’s never admitted to knowingly taking a banned substance as a professional. “Some people would be more forgiving,” the journalist Johnson says, “if he would publicly address his past, and say, ‘Sorry for what I did.’”

His camp instead released letters Gatlin wrote in 2010 to the IAAF’s then-president in which he said, “I am sincerely remorseful and it continues to be my mission to be a positive role model.” He then detailed his cooperation with authorities and his lectures on athletic campuses. It was a move designed to soften the vitriol at Gatlin, but it had minimal effect. The casual fan had already gone into hibernation after the World Championships.

Dennis Mitchell (far left) watches as Ben Johnson (arm raised) wins the 100m at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. Johnson would later be stripped of the gold in a race where several of the competitors, including Mitchell, ultimately would face drug issues. (Mike Powell/Getty Images)

Dennis Mitchell, Gatlin’s coach, says he wanted that 2015 race in Beijing against Bolt "so bad." (Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports)

Gatlin (at bottom) was that close to finally getting the better of his rival Bolt. Instead, Bolt took gold at the 2015 World Championships by a single hundredth of a second. (Ian Walton/Getty Images)

Bolt and Gatlin shared an embrace after Bolt’s razor-thin win in the 100m in the 2015 World Championships. (Ian Walton/Getty Images)

Gatlin celebrates a victory in the 60m at the IAAF World Indoor Athletic Championships in 2003, one of his earliest professional events. (Harry How/Getty Images)

Bolt and Gatlin flanked American Tyson Gay during their tight race in the 100m final at the 2012 London Olympics. (Mustafa Yalcin/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Shortly before his suspension, in May 2006, Gatlin ran a then-world record 9.76 in the 100m at a meet in Doha, Qatar. (KARIM JAAFAR/AFP/Getty Images)

During his ban from track and field, Gatlin tried out for two different NFL teams. He worked out for the Texans and was invited to the Buccaneers’ rookie camp in 2007. (Doug Benc/Getty Images)

As much as he wants to beat Bolt, Gatlin still finds time to share laughs with his Jamaican rival, like here after the 200m final at the 2015 World Championships. (Michael Steele/Getty Images)

Since last summer he’s developed a calmness. He joined a non-denominational church and settled down with his girlfriend.

“My coach just said you have to let it all go to be a better athlete,” he says.

At the U.S. Olympic trials, Gatlin ran the fastest time of the year at 34 years old, and with Bolt coming off a hamstring injury this may be his best, and last, chance to win Olympic gold. But he knows if he does win, the drug questions will turn into screams that he can never outrun — he’s stuck in his own purgatory. A place he can only escape for 9 and 3/4 seconds.

For the most part he’s given up the need to be liked, or even accepted. Now he just imagines running those roughly 9.75 seconds just right, and crossing the finish line ahead of Bolt on Sunday. He’ll run to the edge of the track and grab Mitchell, and they’ll know, at least between them, that all is forgiven.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published June 30. It has been updated ahead of Gatlin’s appearance at the Rio Olympics.

Flinder Boyd can be found at @FlinderBoyd.