Justin Gatlin, returning from steroids ban, hopes for a restart

Justin Gatlin, the 100-meter gold medalist in 2004, was considered one of the sport's drug-free ambassadors before he tested positive.
Justin Gatlin, the 100-meter gold medalist in 2004, was considered one of the sport's drug-free ambassadors before he tested positive. (Photos By Joey Ivansco For The Washington Post)
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By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Olympic sprinter Justin Gatlin fought anti-doping officials for four years after testing positive for steroids in 2006. He claimed he had been sabotaged by a vengeful massage therapist who wielded steroid cream. He sought leniency because of special circumstances, including his cooperation with federal investigators in a steroids probe in which he was never implicated. He appealed his four-year ban, then pleaded for early reinstatement.

Every step of the way, anti-doping officials opposed Gatlin, who had equaled the world record in the 100 meters 10 weeks before his positive test was announced. And every step of the way, Gatlin lost.

Now, as Gatlin, 28, prepares to return to the sport he once dominated, he faces a new hurdle -- but with a surprising advocate by his side. As meet directors in Europe threaten to bar him from their prestigious events even after his ban expires July 24, U.S. Anti-Doping Agency Chief Executive Officer Travis Tygart has thrown his support Gatlin's way.

Tygart, who personally led the 2007 arbitration hearing against Gatlin, has a strong message for race officials who want to keep Gatlin off of their tracks.

"He served his time," Tygart said during a telephone interview. "He ought to be fully reinstated. . . . The [World Anti-Doping Agency] Code ought to be upheld by any meet or organization that has adopted the Code. That's the spirit of the Code. Anything short of that would be inequitable.

"If you want lifetime bans after the first offense, then you should be screaming and yelling about that, not disregarding a rule that is in place that allows someone to compete. That's unfair."

'I've served my time'

In U.S. professional sports, doping bans generally require sitting out a few games or some portion of one season. A heartfelt apology in front of television cameras and a resumption of athletic excellence often bring about a virtually complete societal exoneration. Such is not the case for those who test positive for drugs in most Olympic sports. The penalties are longer, and the stigma seemingly permanent. Two years ago, a British high court upheld the British Olympic Committee's decision to bar sprinter Dwain Chambers, whose two-year steroid ban concluded in 2006, from the 2008 Summer Games and all future Olympics.

"Mr. Gatlin has massively damaged our sport," said Patrick K. Magyar, the president and meeting director for Weltklasse Zurich, which takes place Aug. 19, in an e-mail. "It is very clear that we will not be in a position to invite him this or the upcoming years."

At least one other meet -- the Aug. 13 London Grand Prix -- will abide by the same policy, according to a meet spokesman, setting the stage for a vexing summer for Gatlin, who has been drug-tested continuously since he flunked a test administered on April 22, 2006. (Other European meets have informally agreed to keep athletes who have served drug bans from competing via their membership in Euromeetings Track and Field.) No such policy is in place at major meets on U.S. soil, including the June U.S. championships in Des Moines, but all will take place before Gatlin's ban is over.

Gatlin could be relegated to running in second-tier events, hoping to lay down some fast times that might attract attention and overcome the likely snubs.

"I hope and pray I'm not blackballed," Gatlin said recently after playing in a celebrity golf tournament in Miami. "I just want to get back out there and run again. I've served my time. I've done my punishment. I want to be able to prove myself."

Gatlin, who won a gold, silver and bronze medal at the 2004 Summer Games in Athens, had been considered one of the sport's drug-free ambassadors until he tested positive, and the result shook USA Track and Field to its foundation. Gatlin insisted from the beginning that he did not knowingly consume banned drugs, a response that drew guffaws or condemnation from many in the sport. Gatlin's reputation and the circumstances of his case -- he cooperated with federal agents to secretly record more than a dozen calls with his coach, Trevor Graham, who was convicted of lying to steroids agents in 2008 and banned for life from coaching by USADA -- generated some sympathy among sport insiders, but did little to erase the generally negative perceptions.

"I was definitely angry, angry at the world," Gatlin said. "There was a lot of anger, a lot of sadness, a lot of pain. But you have to handle it a certain way. I didn't want kids to see me in rehab or drunk at parties or on narcotics, throwing my life away. . . . I never wanted to let everybody down. Even before this happened, that's what really pushed me to be the athlete I am. I didn't want to let everybody down."

'I don't feel older'

Last fall, eying his pending reinstatement, Gatlin joined the Atlanta-based training group run by Loren Seagrave, a longtime track coach who also has worked with NFL players and other elite athletes. Seagrave said he spent hours talking to Gatlin to determine whether he wanted to take him on, and also conferred with the athletes in his group, including long jump world champion Dwight Phillips, NCAA 100 record-holder Travis Padgett, and three-time Olympic gold medal winner Angelo Taylor.

"They do not condone the use of illegal performance-enhancing drugs, but on the other hand, he served his penalty," Seagrave said. "They feel comfortable that he is not going to do it again."

When workouts began last October, Gatlin got winded fast; he spent three months training merely so he could train effectively. Seagrave, however, said he believes Gatlin eventually can run as fast as he did at his peak, though he's not sure he will reach such speeds this summer. Seagrave said he would like Gatlin to break through at next year's U.S. track and field championships, the qualifying event for the 2011 world championships.

Even so, Seagrave said, he believes Gatlin can run under 10 seconds in the 100 and likely can hit the 9.8s.

"I don't feel older," Gatlin said. "My muscles are getting used to the intense training I used to have. Other than that, I don't feel like I need a cane or bifocals or anything like that. Tyson Gay is my age. Asafa Powell is my age. Those guy are out there running great times. Those guys have had major injuries in the last few years, and I've been sitting around collecting dust."

At his best, Gatlin ran a 9.77, a time that was not only erased from the record books, but also subsequently obliterated by Jamaican star Usain Bolt, who has lowered the world-best to 9.58. Gay, meantime, has run an American-best 9.69.

"I feel like if that man can do it, the next man can do it," Gatlin said. "Everybody says I'm crazy, but watching these times excites me."

Gatlin figures the time away kept him from aging prematurely; he said he feels emotionally fresh and physically fast. At this point, he said, he is tired of talking about his ban and trying to convince people he did not intentionally take drugs.

Now, he wants to race.

"I just wanted people to hear my side, to understand my side of the story," Gatlin said. But, "You can only talk so much and so long before everybody is like, 'Well, okay, run.' "

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