For over 20 years of his career, Justin Gatlin focused all his attention towards the end of a 100m sprint. He was the Olympic champion in Athens 2004, but his storied career had no dearth of controversy, as he was twice banned for doping.
He returned to his sport after completing his ban, continued to blaze through the tracks, but often fell short to a tall Jamaican sprinter called Usain Bolt who had emerged when Gatlin was away.
Yet looking back at his career, the 40-year-old, speaking virtually to Scroll.in from Bangalore where he is the ambassador for the World TCS 10K, asserted that he had no regrets and is looking fondly towards his future endeavours.
And you can’t blame the American, who has won five Olympic medals (a gold, two silver and two bronze) and 10 World Championship medals (four gold and six silver), for feeling that way. He has lived through the greatest highs his sport has to offer and endured the harshest lows.
His illustrious career well describes the longevity he’s enjoyed, but now that he has hung up his spikes – he announced his retirement earlier this year – he’s ready to find another path. One that goes beyond 100 metres.
Excerpts from the interview with Scroll.in:
A few months ago you announced on social media that you were retiring. After such a long journey, why now?
I didn’t want to stay in a sport feeling I was trying to squeeze water out of a rock. I wanted to be able to leave on my own accord, be able to say, ‘my career is done, and I want to end on my own terms.’
I thought it was the right move to make especially going into 2022-2023. I was already hitting 40 years. I felt great, but I think it was a time for me to move in a different direction in my life and find other passions too.
When the Tokyo Olympics were postponed due to the pandemic, was it a struggle for you to stay on with the grind for another year, prolonging the career?
Not necessarily because I had the opportunity to be able to be at multiple Olympics. I understood what it meant to be at an Olympics, I understood what it meant to win a gold medal. For me, it wasn’t the pressure of the Olympics getting pushed back a year, it’s just a fact that I tried, I went out there and pushed as hard as I could. I had a hamstring injury going into the finals, I just couldn’t make it. If I could, I’d have gone out there and ran till 2023 if necessary, but it was that time for me to be able to leave the sport on my terms, and find other passions and other journeys.
Justin Gatlin's Olympic Games medals
|Olympic Stadium, Athina (GRE)
|Estádio Olímpico, Rio de Janeiro (BRA)
|4x100 Metres Relay
|Olympic Stadium, Athina (GRE)
|Olympic Stadium, London (GBR)
|Olympic Stadium, Athina (GRE)
Have you adjusted to retirement life? What was it like the morning after you announced your retirement knowing you don’t have to go through the grind again?
I retired at the end of the season, so for me it felt like I was… even till now, it feels like I’m on vacation. It hasn’t hit me yet that I’m really not competing anymore. It feels like I’ve been out of the sport for a year but I retired in February, so it’s only been a few months.
I’m still excited about new paths, new journeys. It’s brought me to India. If I was still competing, it wouldn’t be feasible for me because I’d be competing, in training, getting ready, the coach would be yelling at me to train more…
Right now I’m happy with the choice that I’ve made.
What are some of the things you’re looking forward to now?
There’s not a list yet, but just finding a new passion, a new adventure. I’ve been doing this (sprinting) for over 20 years now, my whole adult life. I feel like I’m not whole as a person because I’m leaving something on the table. But I feel excited because now I can go out with friends, have fun, drink, party, not worry about standing on my legs for too long, I can go out for a walk. These are all the things you have to take into consideration when you’re an elite athlete – how long you stand on your feet, how much alcohol you intake, how long you stay up without getting the right amount of rest.
Now I can be able to do whatever I like to do and enjoy it. That’s going to spark some inspiration in me to find another path.
You were a part of the generation of sprinting superstars – Tyson Gay, Asafa Powell, Yohan Blake, Usain Bolt. Now that everyone has retired, it seems like you all leave a void in the sprint event. Do you see it as well? Do you see another big rivalry coming up among the younger athletes?
I don’t see a rivalry just yet because I think that the athletes are jockeying for position to be the elite athlete – the top dog. They’re all trying to find themselves right now. But the exciting part is you have a handful of athletes all running the same time. It makes races more exciting. You have to tune in to watch to see who is going to win. That’s something in the last couple of years, when there was me, Usain, Yohan, Asafa… there’s only a couple of athletes that you know is going to win the race. Now you have to watch to see who is going to win, that’s what’s exciting to me.
Yohan Blake had said years ago that he was born in the wrong generation. You too would have been frustrated because you’re working hard, breaking the 10-second barrier, and still coming out second best to Usain Bolt.
I don’t think I was born in the wrong generation. I think I’m the bridge that connects generations because I raced against Maurice Green, I raced against Usain, I raced against Christian Coleman and the young guys racing now. I’ve had a long stretched out career and it helped me look at track and field from a different angle and be able to say ‘okay, this is how I need to evolve.’
Along the way it’s given me more perspective and I have more respect for the craft now.
Outside the track, like you said you competed across generations, did you feel like the ‘old man’ when you interacted with the newer generation of athletes?
You know what, I will probably say I’m the ‘poster child’ of being the old man in the group even though Tyson is only a couple of months younger than me. I think the fact that longevity I’ve had at being at the top of my game for so long makes me the old man of the group, and I have more grey hair than the rest of them. But I take on the challenge and my mind and body is fit, I don’t take age as a limitation.
With technology improving so much over the years, we’ve seen the new shoes being designed to shave off minutes in marathon timings. Has that made inroads in sprinting as well, and does it take away from the human element and make athletes more reliant on the technology?
I think the human element is evolving. That’s where we are as humans. We’re learning from the past and trying to make the future better. With technology, I think that’s the way to go. Nobody complains about faster tracks, nobody complains about better gear to wear – its lighter and more streamlined. The technology for the shoes is helping athletes become more consistent across the board. I think that puts on a greater show.
Do I credit the shoe making them faster, not necessarily. But it gives them more consistency.
As the technology keeps on improving, 10 years down the line, do you think people will forget about how hard it was in your time with, say, inferior equipment?
I think we’ll always look back and appreciate the ones that came before. I look back at Jesse Owens, who pretty much ran on cinder. He was still running very fast. He was using a small scoop or shovel to dig in the sand, he didn’t have starting blocks. Being able to come from that era to the era that I was running in, is amazing to me. So the athletes in the future are going to look back and say to me, ‘wow, you ran on rubber? You used starting blocks? That’s crazy.’
Technology is always going to be the gateway for the sport to be successful.
India recently won its first gold medal in athletics at the Olympics. Do you feel that World Athletics is hoping for India to start getting bigger and better in the sport?
Absolutely. I have a lot of fans and supporters, young athletes from India who I talk to on social media who I try to give tips and inspiration. In the next couple of years you’re going to see a surge of athletes coming out of India who are going to say, ‘if it’s to be, why not me. Why can’t I go out there and become the next best from not just my country, but the world.’
It’s going to take a lot, it’s going to take those trailblazers to take the hard path to be successful, but it’s going to open up the doors to the young athletes who are going to come after that.
There were some dark phases through your career when you were banned. How did you get through those, what kept pushing you?
It was a long road. I took it day by day. Day by day for four years is a long time. For me, it was discovering myself. When I was in the sport, it was a dream come true. It was a checklist – Olympic gold medallist, double world champion, world record holder. And then boom, it just stopped.
I had to find who I was and at the age that I was at, I discovered that I was still a young man. As I came back to the sport I had a different perspective. When I came back I knew I had to hone in on my craft and I didn’t have any time to lose because now I had to be able to work going into my 40s.
And I feel I was more successful in the second half of my career than the first part.
Because of the scandals that have taken place, is there a trust deficit in sprinting where people look at every achievement with some skepticism?
I just think it’s in every sport. Some sports handle it internally and some put it out in the media. I think it’ll always be there, that’s how you keep the checks and balances of sports. At the end of the day the sport will be the sport, it’ll still have athletes, the fans, the young kids who want to be the next great athletes. I don’t think those setbacks will determine how successful the sport will be.
Christian Coleman too had been banned from competing at the Tokyo Olympics. How does he come back from that?
He gets back on his feet by betting on himself. He knows his capabilities, he knows how successful he can be, how hard he’s worked. For him it’s about putting that on the line. He needs to go out there and show himself and the world that he deserves to be on top of that podium. Work and discipline will show that.
With your vast experience as a sprinter, do you feel that one day you’ll go into coaching?
I’m not going to say no to it. But to be a great coach, and in my world I strive for greatness, you have to give a piece of yourself to the athlete. What I mean by that is, you’re dedicating your time and your life everyday. You’re getting up everyday as your athlete, you’re going to the track everyday with your athlete. So when they win, you’re happy. When they don’t, you’re sad because they’re sad.
Do I feel that I’m in the right place emotionally and mentally to be there right now? No, maybe I’ll get there in a year or two. But I find that it’s drawing me. When I talk to young athletes, I find myself already coaching them. Hopefully in the near future you’ll see me with a stopwatch in my hand.
Is there something you still miss about the grind of being an athlete?
I can tell you what I don’t miss. I don’t miss being sore. I don’t miss being injured. I don’t miss being under the hot sun, training till the point of exhaustion. What I will miss is the competition, the travelling, the culture, seeing different places, seeing my fans. Those are things I’m still going to try and connect in my new journey. I want to be able to reach out and connect with my fans, and hopefully still inspire them.
In Bangalore now, you’re the ambassador for a 10km event, and you were a 100m sprinter. How different does that feel?
It’s a huge difference. The only way I can contribute physically is, I’ll line up at the 100m mark before the finish line, I’ll run the rest of the race in.
But it doesn’t really matter the distance. It’s about the effort, the cause. I know there are so many people out here running not just for themselves, but for a cause, and that’s important.