FULL SPEED AHEAD
the 100-meter dash. Coleman was eight. Now Gatlin was training for the Tokyo Games. No man has run in the finals of that event five Olympics apart. If he merely gets to the starting line next summer, he will set a new record. If he wins, it will rank among the most startling achievements in Olympic history.
Or it would, were Gatlin not so . . . tainted. In 2006, he tested positive for elevated levels of “testosterone or its precursors” and was banned from the sport for four years. Gatlin denies the findings, but suspicion has followed him ever since. No number of clean tests or medals—he won the Olympic bronze in the 100 meters in 2012, the silver in 2016, and the gold at the 2017 track-and-field world championships—can change that. In fact, the medals have made it worse. To many observers, the longer Gatlin defies the odds and stays competitive, the more suspect he seems.
NO OLYMPIC EVENT IS AS ELEMENTAL AS the 100-meter dash. It’s the most accomplished version of something many of us have done before—let’s race from here to there. There are no sticks or gloves, not even a ball. There are few rules beyond staying in your lane. At the sound of a tone, eight runners set out down a straightaway. Around ten seconds later, one of them reaches the finish line first.
The margin between winning gold and finishing last can be as little as a quarter of a second. Usain Bolt, one of the most celebrated athletes in the history of track and field, and Gatlin’s biggest rival, won the 100 meters in his last Olympics by less than a tenth of a second. From reaction time and running technique to nutrition and sleep habits, each difference between runners has enormous consequences.
One of those differences is age. Into their twenties, sprinters can build power, which increases speed. By the time they reach thirty, their bodies have started to decline. Testosterone levels drop. Muscle growth slows. Fast-twitch fibers can begin to atrophy. In most sports, those changes can be mitigated by a mastery of technique. Tom Brady isn’t going to be a starting quarterback at forty-three because he has the strongest arm or the quickest step. But sprinters can’t train their way to young musculature, or strategize around its absence.
In 1986, the International Olympic Committee changed its rules to allow professional athletes to compete. From then on, winning an Olympic gold medal came with substantial tangible value, in the form of bigger sponsorships and appearance fees. That enabled many top Olympians, track stars included, to make real money. When Bolt retired, in 2017, his estimated worth was nearly $100 million.
With so much at stake, it was inevitable that competitors would seek advantages, licit or otherwise. In 1988, at the first summer Olympics held under the new rules, the Canadian Ben Johnson ran the 100-meter dash in 9.79 seconds, a world record. Three days later, he was disqualified for a post-race urine sample that included traces of a steroid. Of the eight sprinters in that race, six would be implicated in a doping scandal at some point in their careers.
In 2001, while at the University of Tennessee, Gatlin tested positive for amphetamines. He was banned from competition for two years. He was reinstated after one year, once he proved he’d taken Adderall since he was a boy.
Nevertheless, when elevated levels of testosterone were detected in his urine in 2006, Gatlin—then the reigning Olympic champion—was considered a repeat offender. He faced a lifetime ban. He agreed to cooperate in another case, against his coach, Trevor Graham, which helped reduce his suspension to eight years, and eventually to four.
Gatlin went to what he described as “that dark place.” He moved back into his parents’ home in Pensacola, Florida. He gained twenty-five pounds. He tried out for two NFL teams and made neither. He felt his career slipping away. “I know what it feels like to wake up and not be able to run,” he said. “You don’t feel whole.”
When the ban ended, in 2010, Gatlin was twentyeight and far from fit. But he had more to prove. “I wanted to finish the book,” he said. “To get to the end.” He moved to Orlando, where several top coaches are based, and started to run again.
THE EVENING AFTER PRACTICE AT Montverde, at a Caribbean restaurant in Orlando, Gatlin was talking about sprinting technique. At
one point, he stood up from his goat stew to demonstrate how he’d learned to run. The place was closing, so only a few diners were around to see him positioned between the Formica tables. “If you watch old videos, from 2004, 2005, I used to run like this,” he said. He lifted one knee above his waistline, then kicked his foot forward, as if he were trying to toe-tap the adjacent table. “Doesn’t look bad, right? But every time I stepped that far, I had to wait for my center of mass to cross my body to get to the next step,” he said. “Time wasted!”
Still, with that approach, Gatlin held the world record for 100 meters—though for less than a week.
At a meet in Doha in 2006, his reported time was 9.76, one hundredth of a second faster than the existing record. Then the IAAF, track and field’s international governing body, announced that his time to the thousandth place had been 9.766, which rounded up. Instead of breaking the record, Gatlin had to share it.
By the time he returned to competition, the distinction was irrelevant. Usain Bolt, five days before his twenty-third birthday, had run 9.58. And it wasn’t only Bolt. As many as five sprinters were regularly running as fast as Gatlin ever had. “There are always these revolutions in sports,” Gatlin said.
“It just happened that one of them took place in my event during the time that I was away.”
A handful of coaches had started using highspeed video and analytic measurements to help fine-tune race techniques. “It was a paradigm shift in sprinting,” says Ralph Mann, the former hurdler and Olympic silver medalist hired by USA Track & Field to teach the methodology. In 2003, Michael Lewis published Moneyball, which explored the use of nontraditional statistics in Major League Baseball to gauge player value. “That showed us that there were ways to find a little bit of difference that actually made a big difference,” Mann says.
As made clear by video analysis, a sprinter optimizes propulsion not by pushing off the back foot but by anchoring the front foot and pulling the body forward. A foot in front of one’s body, Mann notes, generates a force that can be “three, four times your bodyweight. That’s about 25 percent more than when your foot is behind. If we ran at the same level but you pushed from the back and I attacked the ground from the front, I’d beat you every time.”
Mitchell embraced the methodology. An Olympic medalist, he was banned from the sport from 1998 to 2000 for failing a urine test. Unlike many elite coaches, he wasn’t an educator, nor did he have a science background. “But he accepted that science could help him,” Mann says.
Mitchell taught Gatlin about “air time,” and “ground-contact time,” and how to sense the best angle at which to land his foot on the track. Gatlin was a willing pupil. “He feels things better than any athlete I’ve worked with,” Mann says. “As a sprinter, Justin is the perfect example of an artist. That’s his great advantage. With something like this, it helps to be more of an artist than a technician.”
Day after day, Mitchell and Gatlin would remain at the track long after everyone else had left. “It was like The Karate Kid,” Gatlin says. “Dennis would put me in the blocks, and I’d take a couple of steps out. And he’d say, ‘No, wrong, do it again.’ I’d try again and he’d say, ‘No, wrong, do it again.’ And we would do it again and again until I’d get it right.”
Before long, Gatlin was running as fast as he’d ever run. In 2015, he set his personal best time in the 100: 9.74 seconds. That he was thirty-three contradicted the common assumptions about the relationship between age and speed. Many in the track world remained suspicious. It didn’t help that Mitchell would be caught up in a scandal involving an agent who offered to procure testosterone and HGH for Daily Telegraph reporters posing as movie producers. (An investigation would later find that Mitchell and Gatlin were not involved.)
Mitchell was still his coach when Gatlin competed at the 2017 Worlds, in London. It was Usain Bolt’s last competitive race. The retiring champion had never failed a drug test, and the crowd cast Gatlin as his foil. “Everyone there, Usain included, wanted a fairy-tale ending,” Gatlin said. “Being perceived as a villain gave me energy.”
The sprint ended in
a finish too close to call with the naked eye. It took almost as long to announce the decision as it had to run the race. The results were posted. Gatlin had won.
Bolt embraced Gatlin and congratulated him. Gatlin could barely hear him, the booing was so loud.
AFTER DINNER, IN THE PARKING LOT outside the restaurant, Gatlin’s wife, Jeneice, told me about the time they brought their puppy to obedience training. At one point, she looked around the class and realized that all of the owners were standing beside their dogs except for the two seated on folding chairs. The first was an elderly woman. “She must have been in her eighties,” Jeneice said. The other was her husband.
As she told the story, Gatlin leaned against their car. When Jeneice called attention to it, he nodded. “I always need to find somewhere to sit, or something to lean on,” he explained. “I think it’s because I’m so in tune with my body.” Jeneice rolled her eyes.
In the past few years, Gatlin has become consumed with doing nothing. After training at Montverde, he’ll usually eat lunch, nap, then watch television. Some days, he’ll watch television, then nap. “Outside of running, he’s pretty much on power-saving mode,” Jeneice said. “Like the phone.”
Partly, that’s just who he is. As a child, he was never in a rush. When he told his mother he wanted to be a sprinter, she dismissed him with a laugh. These days, minimizing motion is a strategy. A sedentary lifestyle reduces the chance of injury; one tweaked muscle can impede a thirty-eight-yearold’s mobility for months. Inactivity might also prolong his career. Thomas Haugen, of Oslo’s Kristiana University College, who studies the relationship between age and athletic performance, believes that the less energy Gatlin expends off the track, the more he’ll have to devote to sprinting. “Look at cheetahs,” Haugen says. “They hunt. They eat. Otherwise, they rest. That’s how the sprinter should live.” Especially older sprinters. At Gatlin’s age, “you work out or you’re on the couch.”
The four years Gatlin spent not competing spared him the pulls and strains that start to accumulate in athletes as they approach thirty—and often cause complications when their bodies attempt to compensate. “That time not running helped him,” says Ato Boldon, a former Olympic sprinter and four-time medalist from Trinidad who now commentates for NBC. “It can’t be overstated. During those four years, Gatlin’s odometer barely moved.” If he hadn’t been forced to stop, Boldon is certain, Gatlin would be retired by now. When I asked Gatlin, he acknowledged that Boldon was probably right. “I’d be too beat up,” he said.
Coleman, the top-ranked 100-meter sprinter, will surely be favored to win in Tokyo. But Gatlin may emerge as the sentimental favorite. With Bolt retired, he’s the best-known sprinter in the world. By next summer, four years will have passed since he was booed in London. Yet he is still here, still competing, still striving for one more Olympic medal. Whatever he might have done in the past, it’s hard not to root for someone who, if he qualifies, will be stepping into the starting blocks against competitors who are younger by a decade or more.
The pandemic has lengthened the odds against Gatlin. His season had been choreographed for maximum efficiency, so that he’d be in peak condition from the U. S. track and field trials, in June, through the 100-meter final in Tokyo, in early August. Then in March, the Olympics were postponed and the spring season was canceled. “We were about to get on a plane,” Gatlin said, “and then everything fell apart within a week.”
He knew that his parents, who are in their seventies, would have come to watch him, whatever the circumstances. When he heard of the postponement, Gatlin felt relieved. “I couldn’t imagine being there, running, knowing that they and everyone else were putting themselves at risk,” he said. But the rescheduling created new questions. “In 2020, we’re not going to have races now,” he said. Could he be prepared next summer? Would he remain healthy? Would he be too old?
He turns thirty-nine in February. “But I’ll still feel like I’m thirty-eight,” he said, sounding confident, at least for now. “Or maybe like I’m thirtyseven, with all the rest I’m getting.”
THE MORNING AFTER OUR DINNER, Gatlin headed to Montverde under a sky of unbroken gray. The temperature had dropped twenty degrees from the day before. Rain was forecast. He was moving even slower than usual. On days like this, he said, his teammates helped motivate him to keep going. When he first started practicing there, “they treated me special,” he said. “Like ‘Justin Gatlin.’ But now I’m just Justin.”
Mitchell gathered the sprinters. That morning, he told them, they’d run three 60-meter dashes, followed by three 100-meter dashes. It was a heavy load, designed to build strength and stamina. One by one, the runners flew down the track. As Gatlin ran his third 60, Mitchell shouted, “Rhythm! Rhythm! Rhythm! Rhythm! Rhythm!” Gatlin shuffled back to the starting line to prepare for his hundreds. He took his time. Then he took off again, arms pumping. Mitchell encouraged him: “Get those hips up!” He yelled out Gatlin’s time: 10.5 seconds. Gatlin didn’t react. He stood at the far end of the track, hunched over, hands on his thighs.
Sha’Carri Richardson ran next. She stepped to the line, ran the 100, and turned to walk back in an unused lane. Gatlin still hadn’t moved. As she passed him, she extended her arm to give him a playful slap, then decided against it.
She bounced away. He raised his head to watch. Then he followed, one deliberate step at a time, so he could get to where he’d started and run again.