Justin Gatlin Leaves Complicated, Uncomfortable Legacy Upon Retirement

By Jonathan Gault
March 8, 2022

Everyone loves a comeback. Come back from a serious injury? We’ll eat it up. Personal tragedy? You have our sympathy, and our support. Tiger Woods cheated on his wife and was arrested for driving under the influence, yet his successful return, culminating with his win at the 2019 Masters, inspired some of the biggest celebrations the sport of golf had ever seen.

On the surface, then, we should love the Justin Gatlin story. As a young athlete, he made a mistake, served four years in exile, and, against great odds, returned to the sport better than ever, ultimately defeating the greatest sprinter of all time to win an unlikely world title at the age of 35 in 2017.

But there is a rule among some die-hard track & field fans: comebacks don’t count if you were caught doping.

There are no blitz packages in track & field, no 4-4-2 formations, no infield shifts. Runners don’t play defense. At its core, success in track & field is defined by your body, its physical limits, and how close you can get to them. It has the purest box scores of any sport, an unflinchingly honest assessment of how you and your competitors fared at the exact same task.

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And because of this, there is little sympathy for those who choose to use performance-enhancing drugs. In other sports, athletes dope to run faster or jump higher because those skills help them become better at their sport. In track & field, those skills are the sport. When the whole point of racing is to compare bodies’ physical capacities, and you tinker with your body’s physical capacity, you are attacking the very heart of the sport.

That’s why Gatlin was booed around the world for years after his return, from Beijing to Brazil (not so much in America, where many casual fans start cheering the instant they hear the words “Olympic gold medalist”). It’s why, ahead of his showdown with Usain Bolt at the 2015 World Championships, Sebastian Coe, shortly to be elected president of the IAAF (now World Athletics), told the BBC “the sport, for all sorts of reasons needs Usain to come through.” And why, when Bolt did just that as Gatlin faltered in the final meters, BBC commentator Steve Cram screamed, “He’s saved his title! He’s saved his reputation! He may have even saved his sport!”

Gatlin was track & field’s boogeyman. And because he had the gall to return from his ban and was constantly on our TV screens as he found greater and greater success, he absorbed immense levels of vitriol. In a sport that had allowed egregious dopers to run amok for decades, here was an American Olympic 100-meter champion who had been caught and exposed. He became the face of doping in track & field. You couldn’t boo the dopers who got away with it, so you booed Gatlin.

The reaction among Gatlin’s fellow athletes was not always the same. Some view him as an unrepentant cheater, but when Gatlin announced his retirement in an Instagram post on February 10, his 40th birthday, fellow American sprinters Michael Norman, Grant Holloway, and Allyson Felix were among the many who paid their respects.

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To say that Gatlin will go down as nothing more than one of the sport’s most notorious cheaters does not tell the whole story. We do not need to celebrate the fact that Gatlin returned from his four-year ban and ran even faster than before, or that he won a world title at 35, 13 years after his Olympic crown in 2004. But we do need to acknowledge it. You cannot tell the story of track & field in the 2010s without Justin Gatlin.

A refresher: Gatlin was a sprint phenom and showed his talent early, winning the NCAA 100/200-meter double as a true freshman at the University of Tennessee in 2001. But at the USATF Junior Championships later that year, he tested positive for amphetamines, triggering a two-year suspension. Gatlin, 19 at the time, argued his positive test was the result of Adderall, a drug he had taken for years to treat attention deficit disorder, and the IAAF (now World Athletics) agreed to knock a year off his suspension. Reasonable folk do not hold this first positive test against Gatlin.

After his suspension, Gatlin’s meteoric rise to the top of the sport continued. He won the Olympic 100m title in 2004 at 22 and the 100/200 double at Worlds in 2005 at 23. In May 2006, he tied Asafa Powell‘s 100m world record of 9.77 in Doha, but that record was eventually annulled because of the incident that would come to define Gatlin’s athletic career.

In July 2006, Gatlin revealed he had tested positive for “testosterone or its precursors” in an in-competition test conducted on April 22 of that year at the Kansas Relays. In the aftermath of the positive test, Gatlin’s coach at the time, Trevor Graham, argued Gatlin had been sabotaged by massage therapist Chris Whetstine and went on to point the finger at just about everyone except himself: Whetstine, rival sprint groups, even Victor Conte, head of the notorious BALCO steroid ring. (In 2003, Graham had helped bring down BALCO as a whistleblower by mailing a syringe containing the banned drug THG to USADA). Graham was later convicted on felony charges of lying to federal investigators during the BALCO investigation and was banned for life by USADA in 2008.

This situation got messy: At the 2006 US Championships in Indianapolis, shortly before Gatlin’s positive test became public knowledge, Whetstine said he was assaulted by Llewellyn Starks, an employee of Gatlin’s sponsor Nike, suffering severe injuries to his head and wrists after an altercation outside of a hotel. Whetstine filed a $3.9 million lawsuit against Starks and Nike, which was eventually settled.

Gatlin has never admitted to intentionally taking performance-enhancing drugs, but was initially hesitant to provide an explanation for how the banned drug could have gotten into his system. Eventually, Gatlin adopted Graham’s explanation of sabotage by Whetstine during his appeal of his suspension to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in 2007.

Since it was technically Gatlin’s second offense, he was facing a lifetime ban. Gatlin cooperated with an IRS investigation into doping in sports, including recording phone conversations with Graham, but that cooperation did not do anything to reduce his ban. Given the circumstances of his first positive test, the US Anti-Doping Agency only sought eight years, which was subsequently knocked down to four by CAS.

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Still. Four years.

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For a 24-year-old sprinter, it was close to a death sentence. Gatlin would be 28 by the time he was eligible to compete again, a time when most elite sprinters are slowing down. At first he tried to make it in the NFL, but tryouts with the Texans and Buccaneers went nowhere. Then in 2008, a guy by the name of Usain Bolt came along and made everyone forget about Justin Gatlin.

But Gatlin returned to track, and returned to a world-class level far more quickly than anyone expected. Shunned by the major European meets because of his past, he began his comeback with races in Estonia and Finland in 2010, but by 2011 he was making US World Championship teams again, finishing second at USAs in 9.95. By 2012, he was fully back, winning the World Indoor title in the 60 meters and running 9.79 in the Olympic final in London to earn the bronze medal. He had even picked up a new sponsor, the Chinese brand Xtep.

Gatlin’s rebirth after four years in the wilderness was remarkable enough, but then a funny thing happened. He kept. Getting. Faster. In 2013, he moved up to second at the World Championships in Moscow, behind only Bolt. The following year, with Bolt taking most of the season off, Gatlin was the best sprinter in the world, winning all 18 of his races, culminating with the greatest one-day sprint double in history in Brussels in September: 9.77 in the 100m, 19.71 in the 200m an hour later.

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In 2015, it finally happened: Gatlin ran faster than he had before his ban, faster even than the 9.77 world record that was stripped due to the positive test. On May 15, in his season opener in Doha, Gatlin ran the 100m in 9.74 seconds. He did this at 33 years old, in the uniform of his new (and old) sponsor Nike, who controversially decided to re-sign Gatlin despite his previous four-year ban.

No one had run nearly so fast at such an advanced age. In fact, almost no one had run so fast, period: 9.74 is a time bettered only by Bolt, Powell, Yohan Blake, and Tyson Gay.

People were not happy. Gatlin’s critics — and there were many — cited research suggesting the benefits of doping could last for years. Many assumed Gatlin was still doping, an accusation levied in part because of the coach to whom Gatlin had entrusted his comeback (we’ll get there).

“The only thing legal about [Gatlin’s] win is the +0.9 wind,” quipped Conrad Williams, a 2012 Olympian in the 400 meters for Great Britain, after Gatlin’s 9.74 in Doha.

Gatlin said he was singled out for such criticism because of how good he was. No athlete had returned to such a high level following a four-year ban. And no athlete, banned or not, had ever run so fast so deep into his 30s. In 2017, Gatlin became the oldest 100m world champion in history, spoiling Bolt’s farewell party in London (the crowd booed Gatlin before all three rounds and largely ignored him after the race). In 2019, at 37, he took silver at Worlds behind Christian Coleman. Even last year, at 39, Gatlin remained a contender to make the US Olympic team, running 9.98 in April and making the Olympic Trials final before a hamstring injury caused him to limp across the finish line in that race in last place.

“The sport’s okay with people coming back and running and competing, but is the sport okay with these people who have had bans winning?” Gatlin asked ITV News in 2017.

For a sizable portion of track & field fans, the answer is no. For good reason, they will never accept a convicted doper like Gatlin back into the sport. But for those at least willing to consider Gatlin’s claims that he did not knowingly dope back in 2006, he has done himself no favors.

We know that there was a banned substance in Justin Gatlin’s body on April 22, 2006. What we do not know, nor can never definitively know, is how it got there. And so, just as with every other athlete, we must judge Gatlin based on the evidence and based on his words and actions. Those last two paint a confounding picture.

In Gatlin’s initial statement after his positive test was revealed in 2006, he said that the 2001 Adderall positive meant he had to be “vigilant to make certain that I do not come into contact with any banned substance for any reason whatsoever, because any additional anti-doping rule offense could mean a lifetime ban from the sport that I love.”

Yet when Gatlin turned pro, he chose to be coached by Graham, who carried an atrocious record when it came to doping. By 2006, Graham had coached no fewer than six athletes who had tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs or served bans, including world champions Antonio Pettigrew, Jerome Young, and Michelle Collins, as well as Tim Montgomery, who broke the 100m world record in 2002 only to have it stripped after he was banned for doping in 2005. (That list doesn’t include Graham’s highest-profile cheat, Marion Jones, who did not admit to doping until 2007). How can Gatlin honestly argue he was being vigilant not to “come into contact with any banned substance for any reason whatsoever” while aligning himself with Graham?

Later, when Gatlin’s comeback began heating up in 2012, he started working with coach Dennis Mitchell — the same Dennis Mitchell who famously blamed a positive test for testosterone in 1998 on “five bottles of beer and sex with his wife at least four times” before later admitting that Graham had injected him with HGH. It was Mitchell who coached Gatlin to 9.74 at age 33 and a world title at age 35…until Mitchell was caught offering testosterone to an undercover reporter in an investigation by The Telegraph in 2017, at which point Gatlin fired him. Yet by 2019, Gatlin was back working with Mitchell again (at the time, Gatlin suggested that training under Mitchell was a requirement of his Nike contract but declined to elaborate).

If Gatlin’s story is that he believes in clean sport, that after his ban he has worked hard to stay away from a situation in which he would, even unknowingly, come into contact with banned substances — the very situation, Gatlin claims, that caused his positive test in 2006 — then his decision to work with Mitchell, especially after The Telegraph investigation, is hard to square. But that’s the thing about Gatlin. His version of events is difficult to follow because he has been reluctant to share it.

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In his 2007 CAS appeal, Gatlin said he believes he was sabotaged by Whetstine rubbing a testosterone cream on his legs. But a close read of the CAS file reveals other possible sources for the positive test. Before the Kansas Relays, Gatlin said he received an “unusual” injection from assistant coach Randall Evans, containing what he was told was vitamin B12; Whetstine later testified he witnessed Evans buy testosterone first-hand at a Mexican pharmacy. Has Gatlin considered that injection may have been the source of the testosterone rather than Whetstine’s massage?

We don’t know, because when LetsRun asked Gatlin in 2015 if he was sticking with the Whetstine defense, he grew angry and refused to discuss it. LetsRun reached out to Gatlin again for this story but he declined an interview request. In an email, Gatlin’s agent Renaldo Nehemiah wrote: “He served his time and stated all that needs to be said. Trying to revisit and convince anyone of anything doesn’t matter and won’t change the course of his life.”

One of the most frequent criticisms levied at Gatlin since his comeback is that he has never apologized for or owned up to his actions. How can an athlete earn redemption without an apology?

But it’s not true to say Gatlin has not apologized. It’s just that those apologies are so vague as to be worthless. In 2015, stung by the criticism of Gatlin at that year’s World Championships in Beijing, his camp leaked letters to The Guardian that were sent by Gatlin and USATF to the IAAF upon Gatlin’s reinstatement in 2010. The Guardian reported Gatlin expressed “great remorse” for his past mistakes in his letter to the IAAF.

If anything, that only muddied the waters. Gatlin, to that point, had always maintained his innocence, that he was the victim. So what, exactly, was there to be remorseful about?

In another letter, USATF wrote to the IAAF that Gatlin had visited colleges to lecture young people “about personal responsibility, the consequence of anti-doping rules … and the importance of training and competing clean.” Gatlin had the opportunity, many times, to deliver that same message on a larger scale. He declined.

Finally, in a 2017 interview with ITV News, Gatlin issued a public apology.

“If they want an official apology, I’m sorry,” Gatlin said. “I’m sorry. I apologize for any wrongdoings or any black eyes I have brought onto the sport.”

That statement has the feel of a 10-year-old who will say whatever you want him to as long as it means he can leave his room and get back to playing Xbox. Is he sorry because he put himself in a position to be doped unintentionally? Sorry because he intentionally doped? Or is he just sorry because he got caught? Gatlin has not fully denied his doping past, but he has never fully owned it, either.

And that is why the Justin Gatlin saga is so unsatisfying. There is no redemption, no Tiger at the 2019 Masters moment. In track & field, when one four-year ban casts you as a doper for life, redemption may never have been possible. But with Gatlin, there’s no closure, either. There is no Lance Armstrong Oprah interview on the horizon, no catharsis for the running world. When Gatlin tested positive in 2006, a fog descended over him, one that remained for the rest of his career. Justin Gatlin has left the sport of running now. The fog remains.

Talk about Gatlin’s retirement and legacy on our world-famous messageboard/fan forum: MB: Jonathan Gault: Justin Gatlin has left the sport. What is his legacy?

From the Archives: Gatlin and LetsRun.com’s Weldon Johnson have a testy exchange at the 2015 Pre Classic: Justin Gatlin Does Not Want to Talk About His Drug Past and Things Gets A Little Testy With LRC’s Wejo

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