Justin Gatlin interview: 'Invest more into athletes' characters to grow track and field'

Justin Gatlin, a five-time Olympic medallist and 10-time World Champion, has had a storied career. It also includes two doping bans. He retired earlier this year and is in Bengaluru in a maiden trip to India.

Tanuj Lakhina May 14, 2022 19:03:55 IST
Justin Gatlin interview: 'Invest more into athletes' characters to grow track and field'

Justin Gatlin is in Bengaluru as TCS World 10K Bengaluru Event Ambassador. Image: Wordswork/Procam international

Justin Gatlin has had a storied career. He announced himself to the grand stage with a gold medal at the 2004 Athens Olympics. Through his lengthy career, he added four more Olympic medals (two silver and two bronze), 10 World Championship medals - five in 100m - and is a three-time Diamond League champion in 100m. He set a time of 9.74 seconds in 100m in 2015 - record for a man over the age of 30.

But there's an asterisk too. In 2001, he was banned from international competition for two years after testing positive for amphetamines. In 2006, he was banned for eight years for a positive dope test. Reports claimed it was for "testosterone or its precursor."

There is also the point in his life where he enjoyed a healthy rivalry with sprint legend Usain Bolt. A rivalry that he admits spurred him on and there was never frustration to see the Jamaican seemingly go past the finish line with utter ease.

Having retired now at 40 years old, Gatlin has started to focus on coaching and in being an inspiration for the future generation. As ambassador for the World TCS 10K in Bengaluru, he wishes to leave a legacy that goes beyond just the track. Gatlin spoke virtually to Firstpost.

Excerpts:

Q. Athletics has had this battle between track and field. Yulimar Rojas, Armand Duplantis dominated in 2020, Karsten Warholm and Elaine Thompson in 2021. What do you make of this internal battle where track athletes dominate media limelight?

Gatlin: I can't take things away from any past athletes who have been on the grand stage and have done things that these young athletes are doing right now. It's just that they're doing it in large numbers. You have world records being broken in 400 meter hurdles (men), 400 meter hurdles (women), in pole vault, the world record in women's 100m being a threat. Over eight men in the 100 meters are running stellar times.

So you look across the board, everyone is basically clicking on all cylinders, and they're running very fast and competing very well. It's amazing, because I think it's a spark of inspiration. You know, everybody wants to etch their  name in history and they're out there doing it.

Q. Do rivalries make the sport better and bring in more eyeballs? Or does dominance also play an important role?

Gatlin: Both. Depends on the field or the event we're talking about. If there's one person that is just amazing, pretty much head and shoulders over everybody. It's amazing, beautiful to watch.

But the thing that audience really loves is competition. The head-to-head competition. Who's going to come out on top? You won last time, who is going to win this time? It gives a better storyline.

And I think from an athletes perspective, it keeps you on your toes, it makes you motivated. Sometimes you go out to practice, you don't want to go and you think about that head-to-head competition and say 'No, I got to do one more rep', 'I gotta get better on the track one more time because I got to be ready for this competition.'

Q. Speaking of rivalries. Was it ever frustrating to compete alongside Bolt?

Gatlin: No not at all. It's inspiring. I can look at him and say, 'I want to be just like that'. Well, if I want to be just like that, or better, then I have to work hard to figure out how I can be at that level. When the gun goes off, we're starting at the same starting line.

So what makes that athlete better than me, and then work towards that, and figure out what their weaknesses are too. And then also try to capitalise on that strategy.

If you just stop at being frustrated, because someone's in front of you, you will never be in front of anybody, because you're too worried about what they're doing.

With Bolt, I had to create a strategy where I was putting more emphasis on my top end speed later in the race, instead of trying to get out from the pack.

Q. And what was your strategy when it came to Usain Bolt?

Gatlin: With him, I had to create a whole different strategy. 99% of the world, I could run a certain way that I had been running through my career. But with him, I had to create a strategy where I was putting more emphasis on my top end speed later in the race, instead of trying to get out from the pack.

Usain's key point is the last 20 meters of the race. That's where we know that he shines at most. So I learned along the way, trial and error, that I had to combat that. I had to go out there and say 'no matter if I'm in front or behind, the race really lies in the last 20 meters.'

Q. How do we move on from Usain Bolt? How does athletics survive his retirement?

Gatlin: The sport is self sustaining. It's not like, there's not going to be other characters. People were watching before Bolt was Bolt. When Bolt came along, he brought something different, a different flavour, gave a sense of excitement to the sport.

So there will be more. It may not be just like how Usain did it. But it'll be something that'll draw the attention of the fans and the audience. It takes a little time, a little patience. You have to realise that these athletes are training day in day out, they're under a lot of pressure. They want to be the best for themselves but also for their sponsors, family and their country. So watching them grow, take it all in, because that's a rare moment as well, when you see the growth of an athlete right in front of you.

Q. How do you grow athletics? How do you make it beyond just the four years of Olympics?

Gatlin: Invest more into the athletes' characters. Average audience probably knows, two to three runners out of a race. You have five-six other runners that they probably don't even know who it is.

I think the sport should be able to do the athletes more justice and be able to create better character development. So the audience can be more invested in those runners.

If the audience already knows two to three athletes, highlight the ones who show true potential. Bear in mind, everyone loves an underdog. Everyone loves to say that 'I was there in the beginning'. Those are one of the key elements to be able to make a sport grow and be loved and adored by the audience.

Q. India has had a long line of great athletes. Now we have an Olympic gold medallist (Neeraj Chopra). How much of a difference does it make for the youngsters?

Gatlin: Inspiration. Perfect example, Usain. Before he came along, Jamaica had great sprinters but he stepped it up to another level. It was inspirational. A lot of other athletes and sprinters thought they could do the same thing.

And that's the same case in point in this situation. Now you have an Olympic gold medalist in javelin, he has done something that no one in the history of India has done. But it has sparked inspiration for the next generation to believe that they can be another javelin thrower or even steeplechase runner or a long jumper or a triple jumper.

Look to the other athletes, find inspiration, grow from there. Young athletes look up to the older athletes, and the older athletes have the obligation to show them clarity to be the best they can be not only for themselves, but for the country.

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