After Justin Gatlin lies down for a massage ahead of the IAAF World Relays, he ponders what’s left to accomplish before his controversial-but-decorated career ends in the coming years.
Gatlin has the greatest title in sprinting — Olympic 100m champion from 2004 — and pulled off the 100m/200m double at the 2005 World Championships. Both came before his four-year doping ban.
What also squeezes into the lede is that he won the last individual race of Usain Bolt‘s career, relegating the Jamaican to bronze in the 2017 World Championships 100m final and shushing the London crowd that had booed him before and after every round.
Gatlin is asked what, if anything, is missing. He thinks about it. He has just finished a training session in Japan for the World Relays (TV/stream schedule here), where he headlines a U.S. 4x100m team with Noah Lyles.
“Just keep doing it again and again,” Gatlin says, unable to come up with an answer. After two seconds of silence, he adds this: “Win the world championships and Olympics with my relay team. That would be a great accomplishment.”
It would also be a foreign one for Gatlin, who has been a part of eight U.S. 4x100m pools between the Olympics and world championships but never grabbed gold in the relay.
2004: Surprise Great Britain relegates the U.S. to silver in the Athens Olympics.
2005: Mardy Scales and Leonard Scott botch a handoff in the preliminary heat before Gatlin could get a chance in the final to complete a 100m, 200m and 4x100m sweep.
2007, 2008, 2009: Gatlin is excluded from two world championships and the Beijing Olympics due to a four-year doping ban.
2011: The U.S. DNFs after Doc Patton collides with burly British anchor Harry Aikines-Aryeetey.
2012: A valiant effort, but Ryan Bailey cannot outsprint Usain Bolt on anchor at the London Olympics. The U.S.’ silver medal is later stripped due to Tyson Gay‘s doping ban.
2013: Gatlin got the baton with a slight lead on anchor but had to adjust to keep from stumbling into Bolt’s lane. Bolt easily passed Gatlin. Jamaica won by three tenths.
2015: The U.S. led coming around the third-leg curve, but Gay and Mike Rodgers couldn’t complete their handoff in the zone and were disqualified.
2016: After the U.S.’ victory lap for earning a bronze medal, they were disqualified upon replay showing Gatlin received his handoff from Rodgers before the zone.
2017: Bolt somersaults in his last race, but Christian Coleman cannot run down Nethaneel Mitchell-Blake, and Britain wins by .05.
Gatlin was part of winning U.S. quartets at the last two World Relays in 2015 and 2017 (the Americans beat a Bolt-anchored team in the former).
This will almost surely be the last time Gatlin takes part in the event and could be looked at as the beginning of a farewell tour that’s expected to end at either the 2020 Olympic Trials or, should he make a fourth Olympics, back in Japan for the Tokyo Games.
Gatlin said 2019 and 2020 will be his last two years of sprinting, according to Reuters in December.
“It’s a target I’m looking at,” he said Thursday, not confirming the timeline but not ruling it out. “I’m not trying to predict the future. At some point you’ve got to look to the future. Right now just focusing on what I’ve got to focus on.”
Gatlin can race carefree this spring and summer, knowing he has a bye into late September’s world championships 100m as defending champion.
He will be 38 come the summer of 2020 and in line to break Gail Devers‘ record as the oldest U.S. Olympic sprinter. He is already the oldest Olympic 100m medalist after finishing second to Bolt at the Rio Games. (Gatlin, by the way, said he has not conversed with Bolt since they last met at 2017 Worlds. “I’ve been watching him play soccer,” he joked.)
In limited racing last season (partially due to injury, partially to rest), Gatlin failed to break 10 seconds in the 100m for the first time since his out-of-shape comeback summer in 2010 when he raced at outposts Rakvere, Joensuu and Arzana while being excluded from major European meets.
Gatlin pulled up with a microtear in his upper left leg in a 200m in Grenada last month and missed some training. He has yet to race a 100m this year and said his agent is still working out his schedule after he enters a lower-level meet in Osaka on May 19.
It looks like Gatlin must summon his speed from the last Olympic cycle to have a chance at making the three-man 2020 Olympic 100m team.
The world’s top three men from 2018 were all Americans more than a decade younger than Gatlin. All went faster than Gatlin’s best time from 2017: Christian Coleman (9.79), Ronnie Baker (9.87) and Lyles (9.88).
Four more Americans born in the 1990s broke 10 seconds, making it possible that Gatlin could be an underdog to even make the Olympic relay pool (usually the top six in the 100m at trials).
“A lot of people said I would never be 9.7 when I came back to the sport,” Gatlin said, referencing his personal best of 9.74 at age 33 in 2015. “I’m always up for a challenge.”
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