Gatlin: I knew I had won

Updated: August 23, 2004, 10:44 AM ET
By Eric Adelson | ESPN The Magazine

ATHENS, Greece -- Justin Gatlin won the fastest Olympic race in history by a face. His face. The very face that might finally change track for the better.

Justin Gatlin
APWhen Justin Gatlin realized he'd won, he cried and prayed.

Gatlin's face could be read from anywhere in the singing, dancing, jumping stadium Sunday night as the 11:10 p.m. start drew near. While Maurice Greene bounced and snarled and Asafa Powell laid down on the track and Shawn Crawford winked and grinned and pointed to himself, Gatlin simply stared down the track almost longingly. His eyes filled with tears as the sound and the moment wrapped itself around him.

Then, in an instant that no one on hand will ever forget, a stadium rollicking with joy and fever and music went completely silent. The gun went off.

Who to watch? One cannot possibly track all eight sprinters. The eyes always seem to rest on one. How many millions around the world followed the inimitable Greene and his star-spangled shoes? How many watched Powell, the eleventh hour favorite? How many sought out the unpredictable Crawford?

Gatlin, four lanes away from the Sydney champion, drew few looks. But there he was. He had started quietly, but perfectly. He always does.

The transition from low and churning to up and burning would be his true test. That's where he loses ground to the pristine Greene and the scorching Crawford. Not this time. Gatlin straightened up like a flower thirsting for sunlight. His hands stiffened and clenched with restrained glee. He nailed it. Gatlin flew past the finish line in a split-second that launched a world into confusion. Who won?

Gatlin knew. "I knew I had won," he said, "when I crossed the finish line. I was just shocked that my dream came true."

He cried. We will all remember the sight of Gatlin crying. That's a change from the head-shakers and chest-pounders of years past. He dropped to his knees and prayed when he won. He placed his winner's wreath on a friend's head. He dedicated the race to his high school coach. He called Greene flawless. He called Crawford's friendship a blessing. He said he was honored to even be in the race. He even praised the career of Marion Jones.

That's only the beginning. And it needs to be only the beginning, because track cannot be saved with only 100 wonderful meters.

Earlier this year in New York, Gatlin was asked the following: "If you knew of someone in your sport who was cheating, would you turn him in?"

Gatlin stuck out his chin, as he does when he's sure -- as he did tonight in the last 10 meters -- and said, "Yes I would."

Yes, Gatlin failed a drug test and was suspended for two years. But that was for an amphetamine in his attention deficit disorder medication and Gatlin was later reinstated.

Tonight, after the race, he stuck out his chin again and said, "Character exists in track and field. You don't have to be cocky, self-centered, mean or arrogant."

And there is reason to believe him. Reason to believe in him, despite the questions hovering around coach Trevor Graham. Gatlin does not need glory. He does not need attention. "I could have gone to art school," he said three days ago. And he still might. He wants to design magazines, clothing, buildings, anything that needs a new look. He can start with his sport.

"He's willing to accept that responsibility," said his agent, Renaldo Nehemiah. "He doesn't have to have a schtick. He's not trying to reinvent himself."

Gatlin is 22, not too far removed from the days when he hurdled fire hydrants in New York and shoveled snow from the track in North Carolina. He is Brooklyn-bred but not Brooklyn brash. He has older siblings to keep him in check and a retired military man for a father. His biggest goal in life is to make his parents proud. Earlier this year, he told them he would win an Olympic gold medal.

The world's fastest man was true to his word. That's a very good sign indeed.

Eric Adelson is a senior writer with ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at Carrie Sheinberg contributed to this report.

Eric Adelson | email

ESPN The Magazine
Eric Adelson was a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.