First he walked the race, a slow 100meter stroll down the straightaway of Olympic Stadium late Sunday night, trying to summon his courage. Around him more than 60,000 spectators clapped in time to the rollicking Greek folk song Syrtaki, while the runners he would soon face preened, stretched and even danced along to the blasting music. Justin Gatlin took deliberate steps on the hard, orange track, gently moving his lips. Got to run ... got to run ... got to run until my heart explodes. ¬∂ Gatlin is just 22, blessed with speed and fortified with the resolve that comes from having survived two events that threatened his future: an unfairly harsh drug suspension when he was just a teenager and a terrible injury in his first outdoor professional race, only 15 months ago. "Two times I thought my career was over, and I wasn't even started yet," says Gatlin. "I had to find something in myself." So late this spring Gatlin got a new tattoo: LIVE TO FIGHT, FIGHT TO LIVE.
He was not supposed to win the gold medal at these Olympics. The pundits favored Gatlin's training partner, the flamboyant Shawn Crawford. Or the scary-fast young Jamaican Asafa Powell. ("It looks as if the gold medal is going back to Jamaica," said 1996 gold medalist Donovan Bailey, a native of the island who ran for Canada, on the day before the final.) Or perhaps Maurice Greene, if he could find one more fast race to cap a brilliant career. But when the gun was fired on Sunday night, there was Gatlin blazing through the thick Athenian air, holding perfect form until he clenched his fists in the desperate final 10 meters, hitting the line in 9.85 seconds, .01 off Bailey's Olympic record. It was the first 100-meter race in which four men went under 9.90, a race that now stands alongside the '91 Worlds (six men under 10 flat, but just two under 9.90) and 2001 Worlds (five sub-10s into a headwind) as one of the swiftest ever. Francis Obikwelu of Portugal closed for second in 9.86, and Greene got his second Olympic individual medal in 9.87, his 10th career race under 9.90. Just an eyeblink separated the first four men to finish, but for Gatlin it was "like I was 100 miles away from everybody else, like there was nobody else in the race at the end."
Gatlin was not only the youngest Olympic 100-meter gold medalist since America's Jim Hines (six months younger) in 1968 but also older than three of the other five U.S. sprint medalists in the first five days of this Olympic track and field competition. The night before Gatlin's win, Lauryn Williams, 20, took silver in the women's 100, and while it was the first time since 1976 that the U.S. hadn't won the event in a nonboycotted Games, it was a remarkable run for Williams, who turned professional in July after three years at the University of Miami. On Monday night another 20-year-old, Jeremy Wariner, who was the NCAA 400-meter champion this year as a sophomore at Baylor, led a U.S. sweep of the 400 in Athens. (Twenty-two-year-old Otis Harris took silver, and Derrick Brew got bronze.)
"There's a revolution definitely coming around," said Williams, a loquacious, 5'3" Pittsburgh native. "The young girls"--and boys, she might have added--"are taking over."
It wasn't only the American kids who were asserting themselves. On Friday the remarkable Ethiopian runner Kenenisa Bekele, 22, won the 10,000 meters in an Olympic record 27:05.10. He ran the second half of the race in 13:15, his last mile in 4:03 and his last 400 meters in 53.02, denying 31-year-old countryman Haile Gebrselassie his third consecutive 10K gold medal.
The changing of the guard proceeded on Sunday as well, when two of the world's greatest track athletes failed to medal in their specialties. Just after 8 p.m. in Athens, Gail Devers's injured left calf gave out before she cleared a single obstacle in the first round of the 100-meter hurdles, failing for the fifth time to earn a medal in the Olympics in an event in which she has won three golds and two silvers at the Worlds. Less than two minutes after Devers's crash, Paula Radcliffe of Great Britain dropped out of the women's marathon. In a heartbreaking 10,000 meters four years ago in Sydney, Radcliffe led for nearly every step before getting outkicked and finishing fourth. Two years later she ran her first marathon and last year lowered the world record by a stunning 1:53, to 2:15:25. Here, in 90° heat, she faltered while running in fourth with just under four miles to go, pulling up and weeping uncontrollably as a sea of Union Jacks awaited her at the finish.
U.S. marathoner Deena Kastor reached the finish that Radcliffe did not. The 104-pound, 31-year-old Waltham, Mass., native, who nearly gave up running to open a bagel shop eight years after finishing her college career at Arkansas, ran a beautifully paced race, picking off one spent athlete after another to win the bronze. It was the first medal in a marathon for an American since Joan Benoit's historic gold 20 years ago in Los Angeles. Upon entering Panathinaiko Stadium, used for the revival of the modern Olympics in 1896, Kastor heard that she was in third place and, like Radcliffe, began to weep. "I couldn't control myself," she said afterward.
There was a time when Gatlin couldn't control himself, either. Of course, he was four years old, living with his parents and three older siblings in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. "He would never walk anywhere," says his mother, Jeanette. "He would run. And he would hurdle the fire hydrants, which in New York are about every 20 feet."
The family moved to Pensacola, Fla., when Gatlin was seven. He poured most of his creative energy into art. "I don't think a nerd would call himself a nerd, but I was quiet," says Gatlin. He began running track in junior high and blossomed as a sprinter in 11th grade. As a freshman at Tennessee he won the outdoor NCAA 100- and 200-meter titles. Less than a month later, he tested positive for an amphetamine contained in medicine he had been taking for attention deficit disorder since he was nine, resulting in a two-year ban by track and field's international governing body.
"He called me and cried so hard when he told me about it," says his mother. "He had been taking this drug since he was a little boy, and the IAAF threw the book at him." Had any official declared Gatlin's use of the drug on an IAAF form, he would not have been banned.
"All of a sudden people were saying that my [NCAA] titles were because I was on drugs," Gatlin said.
He continued running in college meets (there is no reciprocity between the NCAA and the IAAF) and had his ban lifted after one year, in July 2002. The governing body included a statement that Gatlin's use of the drug included "a genuine medical explanation."
Gatlin left Tennessee after just two years and joined coach Trevor Graham's thriving sprint stable in Raleigh. Of course, it wasn't thriving for long. In the fall of '02 Marion Jones and Tim Montgomery left Graham. "I was starting over," Graham says. "Justin was there to work hard."
Gatlin's first outdoor meet as a professional was in Mexico City in the spring of 2003, and he tore his left hamstring during the 200 meters, an injury that didn't heal that season and sapped his aggressiveness. He kept a heavy wrap on the hammy--"I was afraid of getting hurt again," he says--but Graham finally took it off one afternoon in July 2003. "He had to stop leaning on it," says Graham.
With a year's solid training behind him, Gatlin nearly beat Greene in the 100 at this year's U.S. Olympic Trials, running a personal best of 9.92. He was, however, overshadowed by the competition in Athens. The 6'3", 21year-old Powell had beaten Greene twice in meets leading up to the Games and ran powerfully in early-round races. "The most impressive [running] I've ever seen," said two-time 400-meter gold medalist Michael Johnson. Crawford ran his first-round heat in a baseball cap turned backward ("The inner cooler for my supercharger," he said), and Greene looked good and sounded confident while bidding to repeat as Olympic 100-meter champion. "Gonna be a party, and you're all invited," he said after his second-round race.
The party, as it turned out, was for Gatlin. After coasting in behind Crawford in his semifinal, Gatlin got a massage in a small building near the warmup track while watching Graham's camcorder tape of the semis. "You need the best start of your life in the final," Graham said.
Gatlin got it, taking the lead from the first stride and never giving it up. The race was an instant classic. Crawford ran 9.89 and didn't win a medal. Powell ran 9.94 and wasn't close to medaling. "Ten flat, sixth place," said 2003 world champion Kim Collins of St. Kitts and Nevis, reciting his time and position. "That's a fast race."
Because of Gatlin's previous suspension and his association with Graham (who has had five of his athletes banned and admitted last Sunday that he was the coach who turned in the THG-tainted syringe that triggered the ongoing BALCO investigation), he was asked after the race if he was clean. He declared that he was. He will further declare how fast he is when he runs a leg on the U.S.'s heavily favored 4√ó100-meter relay and the 200 meters, with a chance at becoming the first man since Carl Lewis in 1984 to win gold in the 100 and the 200.
The drug question had also been raised the previous night, when Yuliya Nesterenko of Belarus won the women's 100 in 10.93 seconds. That was .36 faster than her best time before this year, a dramatic improvement for a 25-year-old, but Nesterenko denied using drugs. Just behind her, Williams won her silver and prompted suspicion that she was on a sugar high. "I came here to make the final, so this is a super, duper extra added bonus," said Williams.
Williams won the outdoor NCAA 100 in June and maintained that form all the way to Athens. Her first love was basketball, but, she says, "I sucked." Sprinting for Miami coach Amy Deem, Williams has developed a professional start to complement her world-class acceleration.
Williams's silver was witnessed by her father, David, 51, who came to Greece despite suffering from kidney failure, a complication from the leukemia that has afflicted him since 1989. David Williams underwent dialysis almost daily in Athens and missed Lauryn's second-round race because of the treatments. "But I made the final," Williams said the next day. "I had to. She's my reason for living."
Like Lauryn Williams, Wariner was extending a long season further than anyone had imagined. He dominated the Olympic final just as he had the U.S. trials. He worked a solid first 200 meters in 21.5, ignored the streaking Harris outside him and then hammered the homestretch without ever losing form, winning in 44 flat. He ended the night swallowing hard on the medal stand, with gold around his neck, long before he was expected to be there. "He's four years ahead of schedule," said his Baylor coach, Clyde Hart, who also coached Johnson.
Wariner talked daily at the Games with his fellow Baylor alum. "He's a 20-year-old kid at the Olympic Games," said Johnson. "I just told him not to change anything he's been doing. He's incredibly, genetically gifted and very mature. If you tell him something, he gets it."
Wariner didn't run his first 400 until he was a high school sophomore, when he clocked 50.8 in his first race and 48.0 in his second. He was skinny and swift, and his teammates called him Pookie. These days he races in sunglasses, a long silver chain and two faux-diamond earrings. "I don't like 'em," says his father, Danny, "but at least he doesn't have tattoos."
Wariner is the first white gold medalist in the 400 in a non-boycotted Games in 40 years. And he couldn't care less. "It's not about race," he says.
No, it's about races. And medals. And kids showing the world that it's their turn.