American sprinter Justin Gatlin claims he was told “you better leave” Beijing by organizers of the Beijing World Challenge track meet on Monday night, ahead of today’s event. The 100-meter man, who’d just dashed to a personal best at the advanced fast-twitch age of 33, and clocked the world’s ninth fastest straightway of 9.74 seconds, was to be the headline performer at the Beijing meet. Heading home to Florida, Gatlin said he was “upset” and felt “disrespected.”
According to Gatlin, on Saturday, May 16, the day after his truly unbelievable race at a Diamond League track meet in Doha, Qatar, he suffered some hamstring cramping and dehydration on the long flight from Doha to Beijing. He told the folks in Beijing about these minor issues, but then confirmed he was good to go after a successful workout on Monday.
Nonetheless, his manager, Renaldo Nehemiah, told Reuters he received a text message from the Beijing organizers on Monday night suggesting that Gatlin leave town without competing, and oh by the way, they would not be covering the airfare and hotel for Gatlin and his team that Nehemiah said amounted to $12,000.
Gatlin said, “I think they thought I wasn’t man enough and I might pull up in the race, or not finish it and then still ask for money. But I’m not a man like that. I’m not the kind of guy to cheat people of their money or let the fans down ... that’s not what I do.”
There are many facets to this story, but Gatlin may be one of the very few buying his angle, since if you consider doping to be cheating, he certainly was the kind of guy to cheat people and let fans down.
Let’s review. Gatlin’s first run-in with USADA was apparently due to an attention-deficit drug he’s taken since he was eight years old, and so was overturned. But in 2006, he was found to have excess testosterone in his system, and was suspended for four years, through 2010. Gatlin insisted the hormone was administered by a masseuse without his knowledge.
Track athletes are among the most rigorously tested of any sport, but some critics of the current system say a two- or four-year ban isn’t enough, that dopers continue to benefit from the drugs for years after they’ve stopped taking them. The fact that Gatlin continues to improve, and run world-beating times, when he’s six or seven, even 10 years past the age when most sprinters peak (Usain Bolt ran his world record 9.58 at 22 years old) lends ammunition to those who believe he’s still benefiting from past stints on the juice. Or that he’s found a new, better, and so far undetectable way to dope.
But he’s innocent until proven guilty. If you’d want Gatlin standing behind you during trust falls, then yes, due to his hard work and improved diet, he’s actually getting faster as he ages, faster than his own salad days when he absolutely was not doping, and faster than any other young 100-meter train in the world at this early point in the track season. Because his 33-year-old body is able to shake off the rust so much more easily than anyone else.
The Beijing World Challenge is an invitational meet, meaning local Chinese organizers invite any athlete they want, usually well-known athletes who will draw a big crowd. World Championships and Olympic Games must accept any athlete who qualifies by time and place, but invitationals are not held to those rules. The Beijing organizers, who have not returned emails for this story, would pay travel, hotel and meal costs for all invited athletes and their people, as well as appearance fees and prizes.
It’s tempting to think that the Beijing meet directors found Gatlin’s 9.74 performance too burdensome for faith or imagination, and allowed him to show up at their party just so they could slam the door in his face and say, No dopers allowed! A major international track meet taking a stand against doping—wouldn’t that be something? But seriously people—this is China we’re talking about.
No, my idealistic friends, a jaded track insider who asked to remain anonymous provided a more likely scenario, and it’s entirely capitalist. It’s easy to imagine Gatlin or his agent on the phone with Beijing before the sweat dried from his world-leading 9.74 performance in Doha, requesting more money to appear. He and his people got on the plane assuming their fare would be covered and that his new demands would be met, but it was not a done deal. His new higher fee, coupled with his questionable hamstring, probably led the very gentle, easygoing Chinese meet directors to introduce the business end of their boots to Gatlin’s firm and furious moneymaker.
For what it’s worth, Gatlin now says “all is fine” between him and the Beijing organizers. Sounds like someone negotiated a kill fee.