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Gatlin returns to track's limelight after humbly serving his time


EUGENE, Ore. -- Long after his race was finished Friday evening, Justin Gatlin dressed in sweats and swapped his sprint spikes for a pair of clunky sneakers. He walked along an iron barrier near the warmup area behind the grandstand at Hayward Field. A friend approached from inside and snatched up Gatlin in a long embrace, chiropractor Dr. David Pascal. Then another friend did the same, former U.S. Olympic coach George Williams. Tears formed in Gatlin's eyes and then rolled down his cheeks, and not for the first time on this evening.

Here then, was an end for Gatlin. Or was it his beginning? It is so hard to know, because surely this was a night -- and a performance -- unlike any other in the history of American track and field. At shortly past 6:30 in Oregon, Gatlin had finished second to Walter Dix in the 100 meters at the USA Track and Field national championships (a race lacking Tyson Gay, who withdrew from the meet with ongoing hip problems), earning a place on the U.S. team that will compete at the World Championships in Daegu, South Korea in late August.

Long before this, Gatlin had been an Olympic gold medalist at the age of 22, winning the Athens 100 meters in 2004. He had been a double world champion a year later, winning both the 100 and 200 in Helsinki. And in 2006, he had broken the world record in the 100 meters. He had also been the smiling, accommodating face of track and field, an engaging young man doing everything right in a sport where so often people do everything wrong.

Then in 2006 Gatlin tested positive for testosterone or its precursors. He would maintain that he was sabotaged by a massage therapist with a grudge who rubbed illegal cream into his legs before a meet, but he would also admit that the substance was in his body and accepted a four-year ban that ended in 2010. It seemed unthinkable that he would ever again run fast or represent the United States in international competition. Yet on Friday night he ran 9.95 seconds for 100 meters, only a tenth of a second slower than his gold medal time seven years ago. "It's like a rebirth,'' says Gatlin's former agent and longtime friend, Renaldo Nehemiah.

(It should be said here, or somewhere, that 9.95 seconds is no longer, strictly speaking, competitive on the world stage. Usain Bolt has run 9.58 seconds. Gay, who seems to be slowly breaking down and will not be at the Worlds, has run 9.69. Asafa Powell of Jamaica, who Gatlin beat in Athens, has run 9.70. Dix ran 9.94 to win Friday night's race, which means that unless Dix, Gatlin or third-place finisher Mike Rodgers gets much faster in the next two months, Jamaica could sweep the medals in Daegu). But let's file that handicapping away for later. For now, the story is Gatlin. And the story is us. You, me, everybody. This living populace of sports fans is the Steroid Generation. It has been taught the realities of better performance through chemistry. Baseballs travel further and much more often. Ordinary-looking men ride bicycles hundred of miles a day up and down mountains at ridiculous speeds and drink champagne in Paris at the end. Football players all look like animated monsters. Sometimes those who use get caught and in many ways, the punishment is life. Once a doper, always a doper. When Mark McGwire dies, the word "steroids'' will be in the second paragraph of his obituary. The words "Hall of Fame'' probably will not. It is a label that seemingly can never be escaped. (I'll plead guilty. When I wrote about Jamaican sprinter Steve Mullings's win over Gay in New York two weeks ago, I took great care in noting that Mullings had once served a two-year ban for steroid use. Right there in black and white). It's fair to ask now when enough is enough. Gatlin fought his positive test vigorously. Nehemiah estimated that Gatlin spent "hundreds of thousands of dollars of his own money'' in legal fees fighting to keep his career alive. I asked Gatlin last night if this figure was accurate. He nodded and smiled. "That's about right,'' he said. "That's what I think about every time I see "Law and Order on TV. I wouldn't wish anybody to be in court defending themselves.'' (Nehemiah's company, Octagon, also wrote checks to help Gatlin).

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He vowed to keep running, but in truth, he didn't always make good on the promise. He would lie to Nehemiah and tell him that he was training when he wasn't working out at all. Nike, which had supported his career with a lucrative contract, stopped paying him in '06. Slowly, the months passed. When Gatlin resumed running last year, under veteran sprint coach Loren Seagrave, he ran eight races, all in obscure European meets. His best time was 10.09 seconds.

For this year he switched to another veteran coach, Brooks Johnson, and the results have been better. He went under 10 seconds twice before nationals, despite carrying 190 pounds (six more than in 2004) and looking vaguely soft. There would seem to be room for improvement. He might never challenge Bolt, but Powell is a notorious big-meet gagger (sorry). Maybe Jamaica won't sweep and maybe Gatlin could win a medal. "I'm going to prepare myself these next nine weeks like I'm going to win a gold medal,'' says Gatlin. "I'm not scared to race anybody.''

As this happens, are we ready to let Gatlin off the hook? To say that he has served his time? He was warmly received in Eugene, where sprinters are seldom showered with the type of adulation that distance and middle distance runners get. But he remains a pariah on the European track circuit, where he could sharpen his race skills against top competition. As of Friday night Gatlin had just one race scheduled, a 100-meter event at a minor meet in Reims, France, on July.

(Gatlin is essentially serving as his own agent, along with his parents. Nehemiah cannot represent him, because the body governing international track agents mandated, in what Nehemiah called "grandstanding,'' that any athlete serving more than a two-year drug ban cannot be represented, an onerous piece of double jeopardy that amounts to a life ban from earning a living).

There are other rays of hope. Gatlin competed last night wearing a Nike unitard and Nike spikes. Does this mean that Nike might re-sign him? "We're working something out right now,'' Gatlin said. "We're right in the process of doing something. I feel comfortable in Nike right now. But whoever else wants to step up to the plate, we'll listen.''

Eight months ago, Gatlin went to a tattoo parlor and had the Olympic rings inked into the lower left side of his neck. He was hesitant at first. ``I felt like getting the rings was a little clichéd,'' he said. "But you know what? I'm an Olympic champion. Let me get my rings.'' Think of this as a way of reclaiming the identity that was taken from him.

It's fair to let him have it back. His punishment was harsh and real, much worse than home run kings. It's time to commute the sentence.