RIO DE JANEIRO — The boos cascaded down from tens of thousands of throats, filling Olympic Stadium with something uncomfortably close to hate. Whatever miracle Justin Gatlin needed to outrace his doping past and the phenomenal force that is Usain Bolt, it must have melted at that moment.
No man can stay in front of Bolt. He carved that fact into posterity on Sunday night by winning his third straight 100-meter gold medal, in 9.81 seconds, with the ease of a man catching a departing bus in his native Jamaica. All summer, even through the first heat of the Olympics, Bolt created a false sense of drama with untimely injuries and lackadaisical times. Gatlin had run faster than Bolt for most of the past two seasons. Why couldn’t Gatlin do it here, in Rio, and finally slay the dragon?
Because Bolt is always transcendent in the biggest moments. Because he’s determined to win three sprint golds in a third Olympics and move past legend into immortality.
And because Gatlin finally got tired.
“I was tired going into the finals,” Gatlin said after winning silver with a 9.89, well off the 9.80 he ran six weeks ago at the U.S. Olympic trials.
Tired? In the biggest race of Gatlin’s life? After all the physical and mental training needed to climb all the way back from a four-year doping suspension to the cusp of redemption?
Yes, the turnaround between the semifinal and final races was shorter than usual — 1 hour, 25 minutes — even less for Gatlin because he ran the last semifinal heat. Even Bolt said he was fatigued and called the inexplicably compacted schedule “ridiculous” and “stupid.”
But there was more weighing Gatlin down than a shortage of time to rest his 34-year-old legs and lungs. Gatlin had to be tired of chasing the 29-year-old Bolt, of pushing the boulder up the hill only to see it roll back down again. Tired of still being branded a cheater for the testosterone he took 10 years ago. Tired of moralistic fans overlooking his humanity.
Gatlin tried to say that he didn’t hear the boos that rained down as he exited the tunnel and again when he was announced at the starting line, an unprecedented Olympic display that Bolt called “shocking.” Gatlin tried to say he tuned them out. If this were any other race than his last, best shot to defeat Bolt, he might have stuck to that story.
“At the end of the day, you hear everything,” Gatlin finally admitted.
“People, when they come out here they get enthralled in the excitement,” he continued. “And there’s a lot of Usain Bolt fans, a lot of Jamaicans. But they don’t know me. They don’t know Justin.”
The Rio Games have been dominated by doping past and present, real and imagined. The chaos has been heightened by the International Olympic Committee’s bumbling, inconsistent and quasi-legal decision-making. If the IOC tried to unilaterally ban Russian athletes who tested positive in the past, many thought, why is Gatlin in the 100-meter final, running faster at his advanced age than he did when he won gold in Athens in 2004?
Gatlin’s doping critics doubled down last season as he ran a series of 9.7-something times. Every time he showed his face in Rio, the interrogation resumed. Last week, a teenage American swimmer said he didn’t belong in these Olympics. And when he wasn’t being asked about doping, people wanted to know why he choked in last year’s world championships, stumbling to the finish to lose by one hundredth of a second to an out-of-shape Bolt.
So Gatlin was already tired before that short hour between the semifinal and the gold-medal race.He usually has a ferocious look on his face at the starting line. He has a roaring tiger tattooed on his arm because he considers himself an “animal” when competing. When the camera is on him at the line, he likes to form his hands into claws and pantomime ripping something open. But at the starting line Sunday, after the boos fell, Gatlin looked subdued. Shaken. Like a man sapped of strength before a fight against Superman.
Gatlin did summon the courage to launch his trademark fast start, and led the field for 50 meters. Then Bolt measured Gatlin up, accelerated to his magnificent top speed, and reeled him in. At 70 meters, the race was over. Gatlin wilted as Bolt roared to the finish, with Bolt thumping his chest before he crossed the line. Andre de Grasse of Canada took the bronze in 9.91 seconds.
There will be no redemption for Gatlin. There is no such thing for track and field athletes caught taking performance-enhancing drugs. Like felons stripped of their right to vote, our hunger for heroes and villains deems them beyond rehabilitation.
Track and its fans are desperate for Bolt the redeemer. He has never tested positive, but neither did Lance Armstrong. Four of the five fastest men in history used PEDs; Bolt is the only one left unsullied. The doping detectives are just now catching cheaters from the 2004 Olympics. Bolt’s urine sits on a shelf, just in case.
Gatlin could still run the 200 against Bolt in Rio if he makes it beyond Tuesday’s preliminaries and into the finals, but the Jamaican is even more invincible in that event. After Gatlin lost the 100, he went into the stands to hug his family, then smiled broadly while taking a victory lap wrapped in the American flag. He is the oldest man to ever win an Olympic track medal. He called that a “victory in itself.”
Gatlin finally left the track. The cameras and microphones were waiting with questions. Near the end of the media gauntlet, I was able to get close to the Gatlin, look him in the eye, and ask: Could you have run faster?
He looked back with sad and tired eyes.
“I guess so,” Gatlin said. “I just came out and gave it all I had.”