Flashback: The Fastest Man on the Planet May Have the Toughest Job in Sports
Justin Gatlin has two jobs. One is to run fast, performing in the manner expected of the reigning Olympic 100-meter champion by constantly testing the limits of human speed. The other is to help rebuild the fragile credibility of professional track and field by constantly suggesting--BALCO taught us that you can't prove such things--that he runs without the assistance of steroids. These are heavy and often contrary endeavors.
Last Friday evening in Doha, Qatar, Gatlin broke the world record in the 100 meters, running 9.76 seconds to shave .01 off the mark set in Athens last June by Asafa Powell of Jamaica. It was a performance that pushed Gatlin, 24, to the pinnacle of his sport; there is no title quite like World's Fastest Human. It also increased the public relations load that lies atop his muscular shoulders.
This role is nothing new to Gatlin. He won his Olympic gold medal in August 2004, just as BALCO was entering the lexicon of U.S. sports. "I came along in the middle of a scandal," says Gatlin. His coach is Trevor Graham, who in 2003 sent a syringe containing a designer steroid to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, triggering the BALCO investigation. (According to Game of Shadows, Graham initially said he pulled the syringe out of a trash can at a track meet, but he later told a grand jury he got it from Marion Jones's former husband, shot-putter C.J. Hunter, an allegation Hunter denied.) Graham has coached six athletes suspended for doping or steroid use, including Tim Montgomery, who was banned in December and stripped of the 100-meter world record (9.78 seconds) that he held from '02 to '05.
"I see the look on people's faces when I tell them my coach's name," Gatlin told SI last month. "I see when they pause and then start to put it together. But I understand what it would mean to track and field if I ever tested positive or went down in some scandal. At this point that would be one of the hardest hits the sport could take. Not to have an ego about it, but that might be the KO for our sport. I know how important it is that I'm clean."
(Gatlin has never tested positive for steroids. In 2001 he tested positive for an amphetamine contained in medicine he had been taking since age seven for attention deficit disorder. He received a two-year suspension, but it was lifted after 12 months.)
Gatlin bears his role with a cheerful grace. He is engaging and patient with the media and tireless with fans. USA Track and Field has placed him at the forefront of its marketing campaigns, and his agent, former hurdler and NFL wideout Renaldo Nehemiah, has harped on the importance of winning with class.
The 6'1", 180-pound Gatlin also has a 125-pound watchdog. Allyson Felix, 20, the 2004 Olympic silver medalist and '05 world champion in the 200 meters, is among his closest friends. (The two say they are not dating and, in fact, each is dating someone else. But Gatlin also says, "Anybody I date knows I'm always going to be very close to Allyson.") Felix monitors Gatlin's every public move. "If he does something flamboyant or arrogant, he's going to hear about it," says Felix, whose position in women's track and field is similar to Gatlin's, a role she shares with 100-meter world champion Lauryn Williams.
Gatlin came into the 2005 season with a reputation for winning big races but not for challenging world records. His best time in the 100 was his Athens gold-medal-winning 9.85. He won the 2005 world title in the 200, but his best time at that distance is only 19.86; 14 men have run faster. Hence his goal for the year was simple: "PR [personal record], PR, PR," he said in April.
To that end Graham tweaked Gatlin's winter and spring training to build strength that would enable him to carry his blistering top-end speed longer. Gatlin ran workouts that included three 200-meter repeats in under 20 seconds. "I feel stronger than I ever have," says Gatlin. Off the track he kept his Porsche and his Escalade in the garage. "I cut out my social life," he says.
The work paid off quickly. After several spring relays Gatlin opened his 100-meter season on May 6 in Osaka, Japan, with a 9.95 into a slight headwind. In Doha, Graham told Nehemiah, "If he gets a little tailwind, he'll run in the 9.8s. If he gets a good tailwind, who knows? He's so fit."
Gatlin matched his personal best of 9.85 in his semifinal heat, and in the final he got a tailwind of 1.7 meters per second, just under the maximum allowable of 2.0. Second behind Gatlin was unheralded Olusoji Fasuba of Nigeria, who ran 9.84 seconds and shaved a mind-boggling .25 of a second off his previous best of 10.09.
Fasuba's time led to questions about the wind. "I had no doubt that Gatlin would run in the 9.7s this year," said four-time Olympic medalist Ato Boldon of Trinidad and Tobago. "But Fasuba knocking so much off his best--that doesn't happen."
However, even Powell's agent, Paul Doyle, said, "People are going to talk about the wind gauge, but I was standing at the 70-meter mark and it felt relatively calm."
Gatlin's record earned him a $100,000 bonus from the IAAF, track's international governing body, $30,000 from the Qatar national association and an undisclosed bonus from Nike, his shoe company and apparel sponsor. His appearance fee for competing in international meets will soar past six figures.
The performance heightens anticipation of the first 2006 meeting between Gatlin and Powell, who will become the first sub-9.80 sprinters to line up in the same race. It is unclear when the two will square off, but Nehemiah and Doyle appear intent on milking the public's interest as long as possible and for maximum value. "You come down a road like this one time," says Nehemiah. "You've got to manage it properly. You can't give the race away, financially, and you can't dilute it by racing too often."
Adds Doyle, "We're thinking that three races is the optimal number for this year."
The first of those will come no earlier than July 3 in Athens and could come as late as July 28 in London. Also, Nehemiah and Doyle are in discussions to stage a race at a Las Vegas casino in August.
Meanwhile, Gatlin plans only to run faster. "Before the year is over, 9.72 at least," he said on Sunday. Gatlin had already heard that Powell had told reporters that the record was "borrowed." Gatlin laughed at that one. "Then I'll tell you what," he said. "It's going to be a long loan."