RIO de JANEIRO — Life can be complicated. To try to make sense of it, all people tell each other stories.
For Americans, the story of redemption is arguably the national narrative — the manifest destiny to overcome and make a difference in our world. Think of a jillion episodes of Oprah or Dr. Phil. Or even presidential campaigning: George W. Bush on the campaign trail a few years back, declaring he had been “born again” after years of drinking.
Usain Bolt won the men’s 100m on Sunday night.
But Justin Gatlin — give the man his due. He deserves recognition and respect.
Which he gets from, among others, Bolt, who ran 9.81 seconds to win Sunday night, Gatlin second in 9.89.
Gatlin is 34 years old. He pushed Bolt. He won a silver medal.
There is no shame, zero, in getting beaten by Bolt.
“He’s a fighter,” Bolt said of Gatlin after the race. “You know what I mean?
“One thing I have told my coach is he’s always the one person who always shows up for the big moment: Justin Gatlin. So for me, he’s a competitor. He pushes me. I live for competition. I come out here and I compete against the best.”
Now, if the rest of the world could maybe get with this program.
There were boos from the crowd when Gatlin was introduced before the race. He noticed.
“It’s a hard feeling to come out here, when you hear boos for your name,” he said. “I feel like I have clawed to get myself back to where I’m at right now. I have the respect from not only other athletes, other 100m runners I compete against.
“That’s all I ask for — just the respect to be the person I need to be, and try to go out here and run my heart out.”
Why is that so hard for so many people?
The men’s 100m is a nine-second clash of talent, ambition, drive and speed. It is not a morality play.
Justin Gatlin is a real person with real feelings. He comes from a solid American family. His father, Willie, for instance, is a Vietnam veteran who served with distinction in the U.S. military for 20 years.
The problem with ignoring Gatlin’s humanity -- with the viewing or writing of the 100m as morality play, Gatlin cast as bad, Bolt as good -- is elemental. It's not only not right, it's not fair.
Even so, this narrative tends to perpetuate itself — assuming for many the veneer of truth.
Here is the truth:
Justin Gatlin is not a cartoon-like bad guy. Usain Bolt is not the one and only messiah of track, a sport that needs way more than just him.
Giving Bolt his due: he is seven-for-seven in Olympic finals since 2008. Two more gold opportunities await here in Rio: the 200m and 4x100 relay.
Gatlin, meantime, has endured more ill-informed bad stuff written and said about him, more attempts to belittle, demean and shame him, than maybe any athlete in recent memory. Despite all the noise, the extraordinary pressure, he never surrendered.
Gatlin is the 2004 Athens 100 meter champion.
Much of the back story before and since has been oft-told but the nuances little appreciated.
Gatlin has had two run-ins with the anti-doping authorities.
The first came in 2001, when he was in college, and tagged for Adderall — which he was not hiding. The authorities explicitly said in reviewing that the matter was procedural, not substantive, emphasizing that Gatlin “certainly is not a doper.”
The second, in 2006, after that Athens gold, for testosterone.
No one knows what really happened or, at the least, has come clean. Gatlin, incredulous that he had tested positive, worked with the authorities, in particular the anti-doping crusader Jeff Novitzky, to try to find out more. It got him nowhere. He was ordered to take four years off.
Gatlin never intentionally tried to cheat, the record shows.
Hindsight, however, makes plain that he made two mistakes:
The first: putting his trust in his coach, Trevor Graham, who would turn out to be one of the central figures in the BALCO affair. By way of explanation, not excuse, Gatlin was 24 years old.
The second: his camp asserted for a long time, too long, that a masseuse rubbed steroid-laced cream on Gatlin. A reading of the files strongly suggests that story came from Graham, whose credibility — because of his BALCO connection — has to be viewed critically. A more likely, if unproven, explanation is that the positive came after a shot or a pill described at length in sworn testimony.
Because these sorts of doping matters don’t readily lend themselves to easy narrative flow, and because the facts of Gatlin’s second matter sat undisturbed in a federal courtroom in Florida for years, the easy way out for most everybody has been to tell and re-tell the same story that they heard or read somewhere:
Gatlin as two-time doper.
Just — not fair.
Indeed, here is Gatlin’s sworn testimony:
“I believe in my talent to the fullest. And I think God is trying to be, my way of showing everyone that I can do this, I can run great times without even trying to use performance-enhancing drugs.”
You want a double standard? Examples:
Kim Collins, of St. Kitts and Nevis, is 40 years old. He ran in the semifinals Sunday of the men’s 100, crossing in 10.12, good for 17th. He tested positive at the 2002 Commonwealth Games for a steroid that was determined to be in his asthma medicine; the case essentially went away. There’s no widespread hue and cry over Kim Collins, who is the Paris 2003 world championships 100m gold medalist. Why?
The American LaShawn Merritt did 21 months after testing positive for a banned substance contained in a male-enhancement product he bought at a 7-Eleven after winning 400m gold at the Beijing Games. For sure, as Merritt has said, the experience was humiliating. But has he been subjected to Gatlin-level abuse? No way.
On Sunday, immediately before the men’s 100, Merritt took bronze in the Rio 400m, in 43.85 — behind the 2012 winner, Grenada’s Kirani James, 43.76, and South Africa’s Wayde van Niekerk, who obliterated Michael Johnson’s 43.18 world record, going 43.03.
A different context, and a revealing look at double standards:
Michael Phelps has been stopped twice by police on suspicion of DUI. He got a brief suspension from USA Swimming seven years ago after he was pictured with a bong.
Why the level of scorn and worse for Gatlin, and not Phelps?
“We’ve all had issues,” the 2012 and 2014 Masters golf champion, Bubba Watson, said here.
The anti-doping protocols, like virtually every system designed to adjudicate and sanction, work on four levels. In turn: deterrence, retribution, rehabilitation and, finally, redemption.
Gatlin has assuredly done it all.
No one gets life except for the most heinous of crimes. Intentional doping, and let’s be clear about this, can be very bad stuff. But it hardly rises to that level.
Give Justin Gatlin what he deserves: respect. He has earned it: a silver medalist at age 34, competing against the best the world has ever seen.
“I’m so happy to come out here at age 34 and be able to [be] there on that podium,” Gatlin said late Sunday.
“Usain Bolt is a great champion, man. He rises to the occasion. He knows how to win when it counts. I’m happy to be able to get on that track, and be able to compete against a guy like that."