His muscular frame carried a heavy cross but he managed to be the first to the finish line. Justin Gatlin regained the title of the world’s fastest man at the IAAF World Athletics Championships 2017 with a stunning show that lasted 9.92 seconds but encapsulated his long battle to reiterate his claims of being innocent to use of banned performance enhancing drugs.
And in doing that, the much-maligned 35-year-old American managed to take the golden hue away from living sporting legend Usain Bolt’s farewell party. But, aware that Bolt’s farewell was bigger than his own redemption at the world stage, Gatlin did well to cede the honour of doing a victory lap to the Jamaican.
He was only expected to be an also-ran, a support cast at best, in the 100 metres final but he stole everyone’s thunder with a season’s best time and then, graciously or due to the lack of public approval, depending on what you want to believe, knelt before the greatest sprinter the world has known and let him go on a victory lap as if he had won another gold.
"I have nothing but respect for him," Gatlin told reporters after the race, having put his finger to the lips in a gesture that screamed "Silence!" back at those who were booing him. That was perhaps a spur of the moment release of bottled up emotion, the noise of boos perhaps echoing in his mind more than the cheering from a bunch of supporters.
Some will say that he should never have been racing in the first place, having tested positive for using a banned substance a second time in 2006 – an offence that invited a life-ban under the rules prevalent then. They reckon that Gatlin’s victory is a triumph of the negatives that have eroded the very tenets on which sport is played.
First, he managed to reduce his life ban to an eight-year suspension by agreeing to help United States Anti-Doping Agency’s (USADA) campaign against drugs in sport. He then got that reduced by half after convincing a USADA appeal panel that he had he had not taken performance-enhancing drugs knowingly.
Gatlin has always maintained that he had served his time – as per the rules of the time and as interpreted by an anti-doping appeals panel. But instead of addressing key issues, his return has always raised question marks about the loopholes in the anti-doping rules. He was the sprinter whose times always appeared to bring the asterisk mark along.
Yet, not feeling any pressure, he ran the race as if the world immediately around him did not exist. From gun to beam, he focused on getting his act together as perfectly as possible. It did not matter to him that the broadcaster’s trackside camera had 21-year-old Christian Coleman and Bolt in its focus. Running in lane 8 and closer to the camera, Gatlin got home to shed a monkey off his back.
For all that, the doubts will remain but it is apparent that he has come to terms with that and focusses on expressing himself on track the best way he can. Yet, at an age 35, to become the oldest man to win the fastest man of the world – a good dozen eventful years after he won it the first time – speaks of his ability to shut the negatives out and focus on his work ethic and competitiveness.
He has publicly acknowledged the fact that Bolt had motivated him to be the athlete he is today. "He has definitely motivated me to get back on the grind and pushed me to times I never thought I would run. I felt like if one can could do it, the next man could do it to. I wanted to be the next man," Gatlin said of the Jamaican.
Bolt was not being condescending when he suggested that Gatlin has done his time and worked to be one of the best athletes. "He's one of the best competitors I've ever competed with. I know if I don't show up, he's always gonna win," said Bolt, the only sprinter with a top-30 time never to test positive for a banned substance.
Perhaps Gatlin will value the warm, genuine embrace he got from Bolt a lot more than the world championship gold itself. He may be dismissive of the booing since the Olympic Games in Rio last year as mere background noise but that hug from the world’s greatest sprinter – and a sports legend in his lifetime – would have come as the greatest balm for him.
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Updated Date: Aug 06, 2017 20:05:20 IST