Gatlin's peers have little sympathy for the banned sprinter
EUGENE -- The news came late yesterday afternoon that Justin Gatlin's last attempt at judicial intervention to enable his participation in the Olympic Track and Field Trials had been turned aside. (In a hilarious Blackberry World moment, this information was delivered in a press conference here by a colleague of mine who first asked U.S. 100-meter favorite and world champion Tyson Gay how he would feel -- hypothetically -- if Gatlin ran and then modified his question 15 minutes later to ask how Gay felt -- actually -- that Gatlin was, in fact, not running). Gay's answers, in summary: Bad, and then better.
There was no such delivery -- techno-comic or otherwise -- regarding the absence of Daniel Lincoln, the American record holder in the 3,000-meter steeplechase. He will not be here either, because he underwent heel surgery last September and has just recently reached the point where, in Lincoln's words, "I can kind of limp and jog.'' Gatlin and Lincoln have little in common: They both participated in the 2004 Olympic Games (Gatlin won an upset gold medal in the 100 meters; Lincoln reached the final of the steeple and finished 11th, which is better than it sounds); they both went to college in the SEC (Gatlin at Tennessee, Lincoln at Arkansas). That's about it. And neither of them will be competing in Eugene. The Gatlin issue is messy. Athletes agreed universally -- duh -- that Gatlin's presence in Eugene would have been a major distraction. "He would be a focus of a lot of things, and that focus would be on drug-related things,'' said U.S. sprinter Allyson Felix, who has been one of Gatlin's best friends in the sport. "I think that's definitely what we're trying to get away from here."
Painting Gatlin with a very broad brush, he had no place in the Trials. He is banned from competition -- and from defending his gold medal -- until 2010, after a positive drug test in 2006, just weeks before he tied the world record in the 100 meters. He agreed to the ban. However, the reason that Gatlin was subject to a long ban is because it was his second doping offense. The first came in 2001, for a medication he had been taking since he was a child for attention-deficit disorder, and which a college administrator had mistakenly failed to write on a required form.
Rules are rules. The state of track and field -- even as the sport prepares to unspool a mutual, nine-day hugfest with Eugene -- is such that it needs no extra opportunity to enable doping talk. Felix is right about that. Gay called Gatlin's efforts "Selfish.... If Justin Gatlin so-called loved the sport, he would do the right thing.'' That's strong talk. Gatlin's first bust was brutal. Mistakes were made, but Gatlin was not gobbling steroids. In a zero tolerance world, there is no wiggle room, but it is hard not to empathize with Gatlin a little, even if you believe he is culpable in the 2006 bust, which he insists he was not (and no small number of people in the track underground agree).
All that said, Gatlin never had any shot at getting a lane in Beijing. Even his lawyers admitted that. But know this: Gatlin's efforts underscore the essential quality of the Olympic Trials -- Desperation. They occur once every four years and they are the only path to the Games. No committees. No backrooms. No voting. You show up and you run/throw/jump and if you finish in the top three and meet the qualifying standard, off you go. Otherwise, pull up a chair.
Lincoln could tell you all about it. In 2004, he was 23 years old, freshly graduated from Arkansas, a serious runner for just five years. That summer he dropped his steeplechase PR by more than seven seconds, to 8:15.02, won the Olympic Trials and made the Olympic final. On a warm August night in Athens, he walked onto the track with the best steeplechasers in the world.
And he remembers it. "I was overwhelmed,'' Lincoln said Thursday from Little Rock, Ark. "And I remember consciously allowing myself to experience it. I said to myself, 'Good job. You made it here. You're not expected to win the race. Enjoy the experience. Next time you'll be more prepared to do well.'''
Lincoln also concluded, "2008 will be my Olympics.''
He didn't mail it in that night, running a very respectable 8:16.86. It was a beginning for Lincoln, a moment that he would remember for the rest of his life, but also a building block for his future. Like so many athletes, he circled August of 2008 on a calendar somewhere and begin knocking off days. He made the finals of the 2005 World Championships in Helsinki and a year later, ran 8:08.82 to break Henry Marsh's respected, 21-year-old American record. He was still climbing the ladder.
"I was thinking with the way I was improving, I could finish in the top five or six at the World Championships in 2007,'' says Lincoln. "and then have a real shot at the medals in 2008.''
But in reality, he was developing problems. There was pain in his left heel even when he broke Marsh's mark. He pulled out of a race later that season and by 2007 he was struggling to train consistently. He took cortisone shots into an inflamed bursa sac in his heel. Lincoln is a third-year medical student at the University of Arkansas School of Medicine, so he understood that there was risk in getting injected was significant. "If they hit the tendon with the shots, instead of the bursa, it can lead to degeneration of tendon,'' says Lincoln. "It was something desperate.''
The shots gave Lincoln two months of relief each time he took one, but his hamstrings tightened as he altered his stride. He finished fifth at the USA Track and Field national championships, missing the team for the worlds. In September he underwent surgery to correct the heel issue. He hoped for a swift recovery that would have enabled him to run at the Trials, but he didn't come close. By early spring, he knew that his Olympic prospects were dead.
Now Lincoln is back in medical school. He kicks himself occasionally at dogging his medical studies while chasing his career. "I've made mistakes in my medical school career because I let myself get distracted by the whole running thing,'' says Lincoln.
Not to say he has given up. But he missed the very small target that every elite track and field athlete tries to hit. Lincoln was very good in 2006. He could again be very good in 2010. The 2012 London Olympics are a long way off. So here is the hell of the Olympic dream: You can't reschedule it. Not if you are Justin Gatlin. Not if you are Daniel Lincoln, not matter how more noble your cause.
"You could say I feel cheated,'' says Lincoln. "But you can only say that in the sense that I'm really trying to understand that these things just happen. I'm trying to be as positive as I can, and not feel bitter. I'm lucky that I have a good backup plan, with medical school. I have a good life and everything is going to work out. I even think the running will work out.''
He has run on the biggest stage in his game, and he planned on going back. "I feel lucky to have been there,'' says Lincoln. "But I was gearing myself up for bigger things. I guess there's a lesson in all of this. Don't count on tomorrow.''