“I got emotional at the Olympics because my goal was to line up next to this guy and I was lined up next to him and Yohan Blake – between them, actually. I felt like, ‘You may not like me, but you are going to respect that I am here; we are going to battle today.'”
They say one’s biggest rival is sometimes also their biggest admirer.
When Jamaica sprinting superstar Usain Bolt announced himself to the world in 2008 at the Beijing Olympic Games, winning three gold medals in world record fashion, American Justin Gatlin was watching from afar in astonishment – at home, serving the second of a four-year drug ban.
Gatlin, a former 100m world record holder himself, was still weighing his options after he was slapped with suspension in 2006 when higher-than-normal levels of testosterone showed up in his system.
The then 28-year-old, disgraced and banished from the sport he loved, had started flirting with the idea of a career switch to American football, modeling or even acting.
But what Bolt did in Beijing and a year later at the World Championships in Berlin, where he bettered his own world records in the 100m, 200m and as a member of Jamaica’s 4x100m relay team, not only convinced Gatlin that the big Jamaican was the greatest sprinter ever, but also served as the motivation he needed to get back into the sport.
“I watched (Usain) Bolt become Bolt from afar,” Gatlin told The Gleaner in a recent sit down interview. “What he did, it inspired me. I was like, ‘I will see you soon, Bolt. I will make sure I prepare and work as hard as I can, work overtime to make sure I can line up next to him.”
From 2008 to the point of his return to the track at a low-key meet in Estonia on August 3, 2010, Gatlin’s main objective was to reclaim the respect of his peers and, most of all, to compete against Bolt – the man he hailed as the greatest sprinter of all time. That, in itself, is a mild surprise given the less-than-chummy relationship they both share and the public verbal squabbles of the past.
“On paper, he (Bolt) is the best of all time. Multiple world records; anything that he has put his mind to he has accomplished, and in a shorter span than a lot of athletes have done in the past,” Gatlin acknowledged. “At one point in time, I had the world record (later revoked after drug ban), Maurice Greene had the world record, Asafa Powell and Carl Lewis; it’s a hard thing to do, so to be able to do it more than once is a feat in itself, and that’s just in the 100m we are talking about.
“You add the 200m and relay and it blows your mind,” Gatlin added. “I really respect and appreciate him and he made me want to contribute more to the sport.”
Contributing to the sport, as far as Gatlin is concerned, is working hard to keep Bolt honest, to remind him every time that he will always find a determined adversary in Justin Gatlin.
“Usain Bolt has changed the game. He made track and field more exciting. He made people sit and not go to the bathroom. It’s almost like a Mike Tyson fight; you go to the bathroom you may miss the fireworks. He stops the world whenever he runs.
“But it’s my obligation to the sport, it’s my job to ensure that it remains competitive. I don’t train hard every day to come out there and get silver. I want silver, gold or bronze, but I go out there every time with no fear and with the determination to win,” said Gatlin.