Justin Gatlin: “I didn’t sign up to be a hero. I made mistakes”

Justin Gatlin has been sport’s main villain for so long he rarely talks to the press. Now he’s spoken to The Big Issue. Are we judged on the sins of the past – or can renewed glory silence the critics?

Justin Gatlin won the 100 metres at this year’s World Athletics Championships in London, a 9.92 second sprint finish to what had been a 12-year journey since he last won the title.

The most controversial figure in sport, Gatlin has served two bans for doping offences. Many were frustrated to see him compete in London, including IAAF chief Lord Coe and thousands of spectators in the stadium who made their feelings clear by roundly booing him like a pantomime baddie.

The magnitude of negativity displayed was shocking – but obviously it didn’t throw me off my game

“The magnitude of negativity displayed, it was shocking to me,” says Gatlin from his training camp in Florida a few weeks on. “The thing is, it didn’t really affect me. It didn’t throw me off my game; obviously that shows in my performance. But it left no guesstimation for me when I stood out there on that starting line, who I was and what I was there to do.”

The 35-year-old Brooklyn-born Gatlin often has his name preceded by the words ‘drugs cheat’, his biography reduced to misdemeanour. He failed tests in 2001 and 2006, the second offence leading to an eight-year ban from the sport, which was later halved. Pundits decry his lack of remorse.

BBC commentator Steve Cram said in response to the booing: “Bolt is popular because of his lack of arrogance, Gatlin has been unpopular because of his lack of contrition,” while his colleague Michael Johnson insisted: “This is all Justin’s fault. He did it, he is responsible. He has done nothing – zero – to endear himself to the public and get people to understand his situation. He hasn’t even said ‘I’m against doping in the sport’.”

Gatlin rarely gives interviews, especially to the British press which “at times has been crazy” but when it came to The Big Issue he “did his research”.

Let’s start with Michael Johnson’s comment: Are you against doping in the sport?

“Yeah, I’m against doping in the sport,” Gatlin says. “Let’s be honest, I am somebody who has served a doping offence – more than one – so I’m the kind of person who has to be quiet. I’m probably the [most] tested athlete in the world; I was tested 68 times in one year. So when I came back I didn’t say anything, I just wanted to show what I could do.

“I believe in our governing system. That’s who makes the rules and I abide by them. I’ve never missed a test ever. I’ve always given samples, always. I’ve made some mistakes but here I am. I did my time, I came back. The elephant in the room is there’s no one who’s been in my situation, come back and won.”

IAAF chief Sebastian Coe awards Justin Gatlin his gold medal for the London 2017 100 metres
IAAF chief Sebastian Coe awards Justin Gatlin his gold medal for the London 2017 100 metres

Out of the 30 fastest 100-metre times ever run, nine – including the top four – were recorded by Usain Bolt. The other 21 times were run by athletes who have tested positive for doping. In the 2012 Olympic 100-metre final, run in the same stadium as this year’s race, Gatlin finished third. Nobody booed that day despite five of the eight athletes having served bans for doping.

As Gatlin rose to become Usain Bolt’s main contender, attention was focused on him. With athletics’ reputation tainted by decades of systemic, sometimes state-sponsored, doping violations, Gatlin runs with the sins of others on his shoulders. Meanwhile Bolt is one of the greatest, most charismatic and cherished champions in history. In London, Gatlin offended not only by winning, but by beating Bolt on his swansong.

I know the UK is Usain’s second home and it was Usain’s farewell party

“I know [the UK] is Usain’s second home and it was Usain’s farewell party so it definitely didn’t want to get interrupted in that manner,” Gatlin says. “When you have a hero, you got to have a villain. And neither is what it is. We’re both runners, we’re both competitors and we both like competing against each other. It brings the best out in us.”

The dramatic potential of the supposed good vs evil battle was encapsulated by a BBC article from the Championships: ‘To boo or not to boo, that’s the Justin Gatlin question’. Lord Coe borrowed similar vocabulary, commenting that Gatlin’s victory was “not the perfect script”.

Gatlin’s story is one of a fallen athlete who kept running, but it also reveals a lot about who we are as spectators. In our social media age, are we missing a more interesting story? There is little space to explore moral ambiguity. Should a person be defined by the mistakes they make or what they choose to do afterwards?

DID YOU KNOW…

There are currently around 1,450 Big Issue sellers working hard on the streets each week.

Gatlin was seven years old when he was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder. He still recalls the circumstances. “We were taking a test at school. A bird came and chirped at the window. All the kids looked at the bird then went back to taking their test. Except for me. The crazy thing is I remember what I was thinking about that day: Where does that bird live? Did it eat this morning? Does it eat worms? I kept looking at this bird, thinking about this bird.”

He was prescribed Adderall, which he took from second grade until he was a freshman at college. In 2001 his athletics career was taking off and he graduated to competitions that involved a different testing system. The amphetamines in Adderall were picked up, even though it was not on a list of restricted medications. Although banned for two years, the US Anti-Doping Agency reduced this, stating that he “neither cheated nor intended to cheat”.

I had a disability – I still do. Sometimes it’s hard for me to stay focused

“If you want to call it a doping offence, that’s on you,” Gatlin says. “I had a disability – I still do. Sometimes it’s hard for me to stay focused. Even when we’re talking now. It feels like my mind is running 100mph. It’s not like you’re slow or you’re dumb or – people say retarded – when you have ADD it’s like you’ve drunk 100 cups of coffee.”

In order to continue competing, Gatlin went cold turkey. In 2004 he won the Olympic gold in Athens, and the World Championships title in 2005. Then in 2006 he failed another drugs test. This time the circumstances are murkier. Gatlin has always maintained that a masseuse with a grudge used a testosterone cream without his knowledge. At the time Gatlin was coached by Trevor Graham, whose name has been linked to several high-profile doping scandals.

Justin Gatlin competes at London 2017
Justin Gatlin competes at London 2017

This is the incident that Gatlin’s reputation has hinged on. His defence then, as now, remains the same: “I’ve always stuck to my story”.

What is the biggest mistake you made?

“I really do think it was the people I was around. At the end of the day a young naive athlete hungry to win, I wasn’t thinking about the moral fibre of others who were around me.”

While serving his ban Gatlin started a programme where he spoke to younger athletes who had looked to him as a role model. “I felt like I let them down so I thought it was time for me to talk to kids, help them believe in themselves, guide them in the right direction and not the wrong direction I went.”

Even when I win I’m like, how do I beat myself next time?

Since his win this summer, Gatlin has started a foundation with support from sponsors to continue that work, instilling leadership qualities and discipline in youths, which will serve them well whether or not they become a track star. Key to Gatlin’s philosophy is learning how to turn mistakes into lessons.

“When I came back into the sport I wasn’t winning all of my races but I knew I had to get better and get better fast to stay with the pack,” he says. “I would go back and watch races over and over again, figure out how I lost, what made that person beat me that day and how can I be better than them the next day. Even when I win I’m like, how do I beat myself next time?

Are you your biggest opponent?

“Yeah, I would think so,” he answers slowly. “Sometimes you get too consumed on certain people and certain races. I got pulled into that world where I was training for Usain. And when that moment came I wasn’t ready in my heart. I was technically ready, I was sound physically but mentally and emotionally I wasn’t ready. I had to realise the person I had to beat was myself.”

We believe poverty is indiscriminate.

Which is why we provide ANYONE whose life is blighted by poverty with the opportunity to earn a legitimate income.

Learn More

Gatlin was not alone on his journey. Religion has always been an important part of his life. “I’ve always carried God with me through all my ups and downs,” he says. You carried God with you but has it felt like He has always been there? “Definitely. Even at my darkest moments when I questioned: Why me… What’s going on… When the dust settles the answers are right there in front of you.”

The answers when it comes to Gatlin are a little more elusive. He admits making mistakes but not responsibility for them. He describes the 100 metres as the pinnacle of sporting events because, “Everybody wants to be fast, you want to test your natural limits and that’s what sprinting does,” skirting over the unnatural issue that made him a pariah figure.

“Outside the stadium, London was one of the friendliest places I’ve been,” Gatlin says. “I was giving the security team a headache – I was a nightmare – because I’m the kind of guy who’ll walk around anywhere by myself. I want to go to Nando’s, I want to go to the mall, and I would just go out. People were recognising me, taking pictures. I think a lot of people realised I’m not a bad guy. I’m willing to stop and talk. I’ve been that kind of guy – I’ve stayed that kind of guy.”

I think Coe’s remarks are very confusing. He’s the one who gave me the medal and shook my hand

This is a stark, almost unbelievable contrast with Gatlin’s medal ceremony, which was moved from Saturday night prime time when it was expected Bolt would be crowned, to early on Sunday. Gatlin received his medal from his most influential critic Lord Coe, who later said: “I’m not eulogistic that someone who has served two bans has walked off with one of our glittering prizes.”

“I think it’s very confusing,” Gatlin says about Coe’s remarks. “He’s the one who gave me the medal and shook my hand. In fact he shook my hand twice when he didn’t have to. He told me congratulations twice. So for him to then speak out against me but then he’s congratulating me when he doesn’t have to – it was a confusing situation for me.”

Given Lord Coe’s own controversies (Google ‘Coe’ and ‘Eugene’), does it help to know he’s not exactly universally cheered over here? “I’ve seen those stories too,” says Gatlin, chirpily.

It is Coe’s remit to clean up the sport. But although the man most associated with doping, Gatlin isn’t sure about how big a problem it is in the sport today.

“I know it sounds like a cop out but as a runner if you focus on that you take away your focus on running, because you become obsessed with it,” Gatlin explains. “You think that everyone who is running fast is doping. ‘Oh, they’re having a good year? They got to be doping.’ You get consumed by that kind of stuff and our job is not that as runners. Our job is to go out there and run, perform, compete, and do that with integrity.”

Given everything that went on, what is his lasting memory of London?

“Winning!” he laughs. “Two seconds after I crossed the line I thought, I’m retiring! Then I was like no, no, no, I still have some energy in my legs. I can still keep going.”

He has the finishing line at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics in his sights but knows that a question mark will always follow every race he runs. What motivates him to keep running?

“I’m doing it because I still have the ability to do it,” he says. “I didn’t sign up to be a hero. I made mistakes, I’m trying to learn from my mistakes, I’m trying to show people how to be the best person you can be, to give everything you have. Because when the fight’s over, the fight is over. It’s done, you can’t go back. So live for it, claw for it, fight for it.”