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The Fastest Man on the Planet May Have the Toughest Job in Sports

May 22, 2006
May 22, 2006

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May 22, 2006

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The Fastest Man on the Planet May Have the Toughest Job in Sports

How do you set the record in the 100 meters and convince the world you're not taking drugs?

Justin Gatlin hastwo jobs. One is to run fast, performing in the manner expected of the reigningOlympic 100-meter champion by constantly testing the limits of human speed. Theother is to help rebuild the fragile credibility of professional track andfield by constantly suggesting--BALCO taught us that you can't prove suchthings--that he runs without the assistance of steroids. These are heavy andoften contrary endeavors. ¶ Last Friday evening in Doha, Qatar, Gatlin brokethe world record in the 100 meters, running 9.76 seconds to shave .01 off themark set in Athens last June by Asafa Powell of Jamaica. It was a performancethat pushed Gatlin, 24, to the pinnacle of his sport; there is no title quitelike World's Fastest Human. It also increased the public relations load thatlies atop his muscular shoulders. ¶ This role is nothing new to Gatlin. He wonhis Olympic gold medal in August 2004, just as BALCO was entering the lexiconof 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 designersteroid to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, triggering the BALCO investigation.(According to Game of Shadows, Graham initially said he pulled the syringe outof a trash can at a track meet, but he later told a grand jury he got it fromMarion Jones's former husband, shot-putter C.J. Hunter, an allegation Hunterdenied.) Graham has coached six athletes suspended for doping or steroid use,including Tim Montgomery, who was banned in December and stripped of the100-meter world record (9.78 seconds) that he held from '02 to '05.

This is an article from the May 22, 2006 issue Original Layout

"I see thelook on people's faces when I tell them my coach's name," Gatlin told SIlast month. "I see when they pause and then start to put it together. But Iunderstand what it would mean to track and field if I ever tested positive orwent down in some scandal. At this point that would be one of the hardest hitsthe sport could take. Not to have an ego about it, but that might be the KO forour sport. I know how important it is that I'm clean."

(Gatlin has nevertested positive for steroids. In 2001 he tested positive for an amphetaminecontained in medicine he had been taking since age seven for attention deficitdisorder. He received a two-year suspension, but it was lifted after 12months.)

Gatlin bears hisrole with a cheerful grace. He is engaging and patient with the media andtireless with fans. USA Track and Field has placed him at the forefront of itsmarketing campaigns, and his agent, former hurdler and NFL wideout RenaldoNehemiah, 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 2004Olympic silver medalist and '05 world champion in the 200 meters, is among hisclosest friends. (The two say they are not dating and, in fact, each is datingsomeone else. But Gatlin also says, "Anybody I date knows I'm always goingto be very close to Allyson.") Felix monitors Gatlin's every public move."If he does something flamboyant or arrogant, he's going to hear aboutit," says Felix, whose position in women's track and field is similar toGatlin's, a role she shares with 100-meter world champion Lauryn Williams.

Gatlin came intothe 2005 season with a reputation for winning big races but not for challengingworld 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 isonly 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 endGraham tweaked Gatlin's winter and spring training to build strength that wouldenable him to carry his blistering top-end speed longer. Gatlin ran workoutsthat included three 200-meter repeats in under 20 seconds. "I feel strongerthan I ever have," says Gatlin. Off the track he kept his Porsche and hisEscalade in the garage. "I cut out my social life," he says.

The work paid offquickly. After several spring relays Gatlin opened his 100-meter season on May6 in Osaka, Japan, with a 9.95 into a slight headwind. In Doha, Graham toldNehemiah, "If he gets a little tailwind, he'll run in the 9.8s. If he getsa good tailwind, who knows? He's so fit."

Gatlin matchedhis personal best of 9.85 in his semifinal heat, and in the final he got atailwind 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 9.84seconds and shaved a mind-boggling .25 of a second off his previous best of10.09.

Fasuba's time ledto questions about the wind. "I had no doubt that Gatlin would run in the9.7s this year," said four-time Olympic medalist Ato Boldon of Trinidad andTobago. "But Fasuba knocking so much off his best--that doesn'thappen."

However, evenPowell's agent, Paul Doyle, said, "People are going to talk about the windgauge, but I was standing at the 70-meter mark and it felt relativelycalm."

Gatlin's recordearned him a $100,000 bonus from the IAAF, track's international governingbody, $30,000 from the Qatar national association and an undisclosed bonus fromNike, his shoe company and apparel sponsor. His appearance fee for competing ininternational meets will soar past six figures.

The performanceheightens anticipation of the first 2006 meeting between Gatlin and Powell, whowill become the first sub-9.80 sprinters to line up in the same race. It isunclear when the two will square off, but Nehemiah and Doyle appear intent onmilking the public's interest as long as possible and for maximum value."You come down a road like this one time," says Nehemiah. "You'vegot to manage it properly. You can't give the race away, financially, and youcan't dilute it by racing too often."

Adds Doyle,"We're thinking that three races is the optimal number for thisyear."

The first ofthose will come no earlier than July 3 in Athens and could come as late as July28 in London. Also, Nehemiah and Doyle are in discussions to stage a race at aLas Vegas casino in August.

Meanwhile, Gatlinplans only to run faster. "Before the year is over, 9.72 at least," hesaid on Sunday. Gatlin had already heard that Powell had told reporters thatthe record was "borrowed." Gatlin laughed at that one. "Then I'lltell you what," he said. "It's going to be a long loan."

SI.COM

For more track and field news and analysis from TimLayden, go to SI.com/more.

"If I ever TESTED POSITIVE or went down in somescandal," says Gatlin, "that would be one of the hardest hits the sportcould take."
PHOTOPhotograph by Fadi Alassaad/Reuters ROARING
Gatlin had his sights set on a personal best when he ran the 100 in aworld-record 9.76 last Friday in Doha.
TWO PHOTOSGARY HERSHORN/REUTERS;FADI ALASSAAD/REUTERSLEADING MAN Along with close friend Felix (opposite, right), Gatlin (21) is trying to change track and field's tarnished image.