For many, Justin Gatlin remains persona non grata in global athletics. There have been two failed doping tests and also the continued plea of innocence over how traces of amphetamines in 2001 and testosterone five years later found their way into his system.
That Gatlin is on the start line at all for Thursday night’s 100 metres at the Diamond League meeting in Lausanne as the holder of four of the five fastest times in the world this year is enough of a dagger in the heart for those aspiring for clean sport and lifetime bans.
But to further deepen that blow, lining up alongside Gatlin is fellow American Tyson Gay marking his competitive return after his two-year doping ban was reduced to one year for aiding United States Anti-Doping officials following his own positive test last summer.
It is not quite Seoul 1988, Ben Johnson and the race that shamed sprinting, but their past indiscretions hardly make it a race to savour for the purists.
Gatlin, though, is adamant he deserves to be on the start line and to have been given a third chance. “People forget that Yohan Blake failed a test as well [Blake served a three-month ban after testing positive for the stimulant 4-Methyl-2-hexanamine in 2009],” said Gatlin, “and Tyson Gay and Asafa Powell.
“But the thing with me is that I stuck to my story, I never changed my story. In our sport it’s about what you can do to show people. I never came out and bad-mouthed USA Track and Field or other sprinters. I came back to sprinting to run as fast as I can. This is a God-given talent, nothing else.”
Gatlin’s story is two-fold. When first banned for two years in 2001 for admittedly minute traces of amphetamine, he appealed, claiming it was down to medication taken from childhood to treat attention deficit disorder, and the IAAF later reinstated him following that appeal.
Then in 2006, he tested positive for testosterone and to this day continues to profess his innocence, claiming a massage therapist had rubbed a cream containing the banned substance into his buttocks.
As a result of his past, and the manner in which he is still regarded by many, it is understandable that he is forgiving about Gay’s much-publicised return to the track.
“Him racing doesn’t faze me,” says Gatlin. “Right now, I just focus on my own race, I have a great finish and I realise I’m really good at the end – that’s all that matters. That he’s in Lausanne, it’s no sweat off my back.”
If Gatlin’s stories are true, as he insists, then he would rightly warrant feeling bitter about the vitriol he has faced, which he admits left him feeling depressed and at rock bottom.
“I have to forget about that,” he says. “Maybe I’d have a chip on my shoulder but I set out to be the best person I can be and I’m just happy to go out there.”
With Usain Bolt struggling to return from a foot injury and Blake having barely featured this season, Gatlin – Richard Thompson’s world-leading run of 9.82sec aside – has been the man to beat this year. His consistency has been remarkable, with four separate victories between 9.86 and 9.92sec.
He says the reason for those results is that: “I’m not having to worry about the US trials or making the team. I’m just focusing on trying to get faster and faster. I’d love Bolt to be here as we always want to race each other. I just want to be the best.”
Now 32, Gatlin is entering the twilight years of his career, although he still has ambitions: “I’d love to run 9.7sec at 34 or 35 – I think that would be a gift to the track,” he adds without a trace of irony. The Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in two years’ time would seem to be the obvious sign-off point.
He has been Olympic and world champion before – in 2004 and 2005 respectively – but says “like my kids I can’t choose between them” for his career highlight.
Four years since his return from his last ban, it is a tainted career and a CV he is trying to rebuild.