Seven years ago, Justin Gatlin had a decision to make.
He had tested positive for testosterone and faced a lifetime ban from track and field. Though he didn’t believe he took anything illegal, hard science said he did, and that put his career and reputation at stake.
So his decision came down to this: work with drug investigators or take the Barry Bonds/Roger Clemens approach and remain silent and stubborn.
Gatlin chose to cooperate. He chose to wear a wire, to make undercover calls, and to assist the U.S. government in its fight against performance enhancing drugs.
His lifetime ban became an eight-year ban, which eventually became a four-year ban.
Thursday, fresh off a bronze-medal performance in the London Olympics, Gatlin beat Usain Bolt for the first time. If not for the decision he made in 2006, he would have long been gone from the international stage – the male version of Marion Jones. Instead, he's making positive headlines and history, as the fastest 30-something man in track history.
Gatlin's positive test for testosterone, only two years after his gold-medal 100-meter run in Athens, was a Biogenesis moment for his sport. Even after the BALCO scandal, a central figure in American track had soiled his reputation and those of his countrymen. It was ugly and disheartening, and Gatlin's career was on the line.
“This was after Tim Montgomery,” says NBC commentator Ato Boldon, referring to another American sprinter who was caught in the BALCO web. "He was seen as the generation to come. It was extremely dramatic when he got busted."
If there was anyone who had reason to battle a ban to the death, it was Gatlin, who had a world record annulled and faced his sport's version of capital punishment. Gatlin was 24 and already staring at the end of his professional life. He became the first athlete ever dumped by Nike.
Now, less than eight years later, Gatlin is the talk of the track and field world again for a completely different reason: He beat Usain Bolt in a race Thursday in Rome. Boldon says the win is track's version of "the Miami Marlins beating the Yankees in the regular season," but there's a larger significance: If Gatlin had dug his heals into the ground and fought every track authority, he would have been watching Thursday’s race on television.
Instead, he is as close to redeemed as an alleged PED user can get – a cautionary tale with a pseudo-happy ending.
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Gatlin didn't exactly come clean – he still hasn't – but he accepted reality. "Instead of wasting a bunch of resources attempting to create smoke where there's not any, he's acknowledging the accuracy of the positive test," USADA chief Travis Tygart said at the time.
Now Gatlin has his career back, and a couple of endorsements to go with it. Maybe more after this week.
An important caveat about Gatlin’s story: This is no hero. You can't be a sports hero if you cheat. Whether he "knowingly" did it or not, he tested positive for a banned substance, and he'll always rank behind better citizens like Tyson Gay in the track hero pantheon.
Yet Gatlin is infinitely closer to hero status than he would be without taking some ownership of his situation.
"There are some who say, 'You guys have allowed a former drug cheat in, and now he's taking medals,' " says Boldon. "But I have met many more people who support this comeback than a ban for life."
In 2010, after his sentence was complete, Gatlin agreed to speak to school-age children in Atlanta and Miami. He spoke openly about making the right choices and the severe shame that comes with making the wrong ones. He spoke of letting down his family, and the awareness that his victories would be met with skepticism and his defeats would be met with revisionist history of his prior victories.
"Justin talked about the things he had lost and taking responsibility for the things in your body and the people you associate with," says USATF spokeswoman Jill Geer, who was with him for the speeches. "It was pretty powerful stuff."
Is Gatlin a walking endorsement for longer bans? Perhaps. His punishment, even reduced, was exponentially more severe than anything in the four major sports. Alex Rodriguez and Ryan Braun, whether guilty or innocent, have plenty of money. Gatlin had to face the reality of losing future earnings, which weren't in the tens of millions to begin with. That was surely a motivation.
So some could easily argue Gatlin had no choice but to cooperate. Braun's positive test in late 2011 was overturned, giving him some leverage in his PR battle, and Rodriguez’s vague statement Thursday seems to suggest he might have a more credible account than everyone thinks.
But it's not to be ignored that Gatlin swallowed his pride and met circumstances halfway. It's not dissimilar to what Andy Pettitte did after the Mitchell Report came out, and he, like Gatlin, is enjoying a late-career renaissance while some current and former teammates are digging themselves a deeper hole.
Gatlin once ran a world-record 9.77 in the 100-meter dash. That mark, technically, no longer exists. But at age 31, Gatlin is the fastest 30-something runner in history. That mark does exist. And if he keeps his record clean, Gatlin will be remembered for that cherished American storyline: a comeback.
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