Esquire (USA)

FULL SPEED AHEAD

- Sports · Running · Olympic Games · Athletics · Tokyo · Usain Bolt · Tom Brady · International Olympic Committee · Tennessee · Pensacola, FL · Florida · NFL · Doha · Isle of Man · United States of America · London · Justin Gatlin · Ben Johnson · University of Tennessee · Pensacola · Formica · USA Track & Field · Michael Lewis · Moneyball

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.

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 ??  ?? With Florida un­der quar­an­tine and group prac­tices on hia­tus, Justin Gatlin has been train­ing on his own, in the sub­urbs out­side Or­lando.
The Olympic sprinter, thirty-eight, still hopes to com­pete at the Sum­mer Games in Tokyo, which have been post­poned due to the coro­n­avirus pan­demic.
With Florida un­der quar­an­tine and group prac­tices on hia­tus, Justin Gatlin has been train­ing on his own, in the sub­urbs out­side Or­lando. The Olympic sprinter, thirty-eight, still hopes to com­pete at the Sum­mer Games in Tokyo, which have been post­poned due to the coro­n­avirus pan­demic.

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