Sprinters lead short athletic lives. Their success or failure is measured in highly adrenalized 10-second spans, and most retire after two or three shots at Olympic glory. The smallest misstep is professionally fatal. Which is why it’s astonishing that the best American hope to dethrone Jamaican sensation Usain Bolt in London this August is 30-year-old Justin Gatlin. In 2004, Gatlin was seen as the next Carl Lewis: a clean-cut American with a world record and a gold medal in the 100 meters. Then came the positive drug test before a meaningless Kansas race (Gatlin’s coach, the now infamous, BALCO-implicated Trevor Graham, claimed a massage therapist sabotaged Gatlin with laced leg cream), the separation with Graham, and the four-year ban. While Gatlin waited it out at home in Florida, Bolt arrived with a fury, destroying the 2008 Olympics in sport-altering fashion. Since then, Gatlin has quietly done the improbable: come back. He returned to competition last year, earning a spot at the IAAF World Championships in Daegu, South Korea—he made it to the semifinals despite competing with frostbitten toes after entering a cryotherapy chamber in sweaty socks. This March in Istanbul, he won the World Indoor Championships in the 60 meters with the same time he ran in 2003 (6.46 seconds). Abe Streep spoke with Gatlin as he geared up for the Olympic Trials, which begin June 21 in Eugene, Oregon.
So who’s the best American sprinter right now?
I’m the one with the most up-to-date hardware.
Sprinting has traditionally been a U.S.-dominated sport, and now Jamaica is the talk of the track world. Do you take that challenge personally?
At first I think we just sat back, because Americans dominated sprint for so long—like, Well, they’re having a good run, but it’ll be over soon. But we can’t think like that. We have to really understand that this could be a changing of the guard if we don’t fight back.
Some would say the guard has changed.
They may have a couple of sprinters who have been running well. I think we have the numbers on our side. Our Trials are so deep, the depth of sprinting is so talented. It’s just so hard to make it through the Trials that it seems like the Olympics are a walk in the park sometimes.
How do you hang with Bolt over those last 40 meters, when his long stride takes over?
Even if you watch the races I won—the indoor titles and the Olympics—I’ve never really been a superfast starter. I have a long stride and a long, powerful cadence toward the last 40 meters. I think I probably have the only stride to match his.
When he calls himself the greatest natural athlete the world has ever seen, what do you think?
I didn’t know this was a Bolt interview.
Fair enough. What was going through your head the first time you ran competitively after the ban?
You run through everything. You have to physically and mentally get yourself ready. You have to make sure you build up your confidence. So it was kind of a checklist. Now I think I have it all together. I’m physically ready, I’m strong, I’m in shape, I lost a lot of weight, and now, mentally, winning the indoor worlds has set me up for going outdoors.
What’s it like, the moment right before you run? You’re on for only nine seconds.
It’s a mix between a drag race and jumping into freezing cold water for the first time. You know it’s cold, but you know you gotta do it—you don’t want to be the guy who’s standing there on the sideline, so you jump in and get it done. You can’t back down. You’re on the line: go after it. And the drag race part—you work so hard, your team is there, you’re massaged, you stretched, you warmed up properly, the people are there to cheer you on. You’re ready. So when that gun goes off, you have to put all your effort, all your emotions, all your feelings, all your physical power into every step.
You said there were times when you were out of the sport when it got pretty dark. You were quoted as saying, “Who would miss me if I ran this car off the road right now?” How did you overcome that?
Total strangers who believed in me. It was dark times for everyone, not just me. Everyone who was part of my team: my mother, my father—it affected us all. We were all shaken. But the people who’d never seen me in person before, or just reached out to me and gave me encouraging words, to keep my head up and keep coming back and keep going—they’re the people who really lifted me back up.
Track is sort of like cycling: the audience has gotten jaded, and there’s an assumption of guilt whenever doping accusations come up. How do you regain that trust?
At the end of the day, every sport has its black eye when it comes to substance abuse or any kind of scandal, period. It’s just about how the real fans know how talented the athletes are and how dedicated they are to their sport. Track and field is a sport that’s about What have you done for me lately? You have a guy like Tyson Gay, who beat Bolt the year before last and now he’s injured and everybody’s wondering if he’s going to make it back. Now the up-and-coming guy is Yohan Blake. Our sport is surrounded by nine seconds, and that’s how long the attention span is for fans: if you can grasp those nine seconds, you’re the man of the hour.
You blamed your positive test on your masseur. Do you stand by that explanation?
I haven’t recanted my story or changed it. I’m not even sure what happened. I’m only going with the process of elimination, and that’s all there really is.
Why should jaded fans trust you? Why should it be different with you than other athletes who have been accused?
The old Justin would be concerned about jaded fans and how they feel. I really don’t feel anything for the jaded fans if they don’t feel anything for me. My fans who love me and care about me and support me—those are the ones I run for.
As a kid, you were big into the outdoors. You were into animals and bugs and wanted to be a zoologist.
Yeah, the praying mantis was my favorite. He has no natural predators in the insect world. He's not really aggressive, but he’s a stalker, and in a way I feel like that’s what I am. I don’t come in knocking doors down. I’m not loud. But I’m watching and waiting for my moment to take the throne.