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Gatlin: I knew I had won

8/23/2004

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.

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 eric.adelson@espn3.com. Carrie Sheinberg contributed to this report.