The Guns of Gatlin
Justin Gatlin, much maligned, vilified, hated and not popular in the least, until he came to South Africa in 2018. His welcome from fans compared to that of the media was vastly different. After his race at the second Liquid Telecom Grand Prix Meeting in a bursting Tuks Athletics Stadium, the spectators mobbed Gatlin and basket carriers were clamouring for an autograph or a photo with him. Contrast that with the overflowing pre-event press conference where Gatlin was repeatedly asked about his doping legacy – and legacy it is.
The first conversation
In 2018 one of my clients, Michael Meyer of Stillwater Sports, dropped me the following message; “Manfred what would do think about bringing out Justin Gatlin? How will South Africans and the media react?” It was an interesting question. Athletics lovers and fans who follow the sport know a fair bit about the Gatlin Saga. What most people know is that Gatlin served two doping bans. One for an amphetamine and one for testosterone. He was banned for the amphetamine which he used a prescribed medication to manage ADD – attention deficit disorder. A medication that many athletes have been on and are still on. The two year ban was reduced to one year. This was in 2001. Now if this indeed correct, then his ban was in essence an injustice. So, should he have faced that first ban?
The second ban for four years came about in 2006. He tested positive for testosterone. Gatlin blames a disgruntled massage therapist with an axe to grind. Many believed his four-year ban would end his career. Instead on his return to competition in 2010, he became indomitable. His triumphant return set tongues wagging as some asked how an athlete returns from a four-year suspension better than ever before? Gatlin has not failed a drugs test since his return. What has become more than apparent is that Gatlin has mastered the technique of sprinting to an extremely high level. He is almost flawless. From his start, to his execution. And of course, his incredible mental toughness and race savvy. Gatlin had become a championship racer. The mental toughness no doubt bred during the four years he endured hate speech, being vilified and being the poster child of doping. This was either going to make or break him. It made him. The end result? 2017 World 100m Champion. Beating the great Usain Bolt in the process.
So, when Michael Meyer raised the possibility of Gatlin coming to South Africa for the second leg of the 2018 Liquid Telecom Grand Prix Series, it was both exciting and nerve-racking news. How to deal with the inevitable media frenzy of doping? In the end the only person who could handle that issue, was Gatlin himself. To his credit at the pre-event press conference, Gatlin did not shirk from the questions, dodge them or become aggressive. He was patient and answered all questions thrown at him. He was grilled though, make no mistake.
Prior to the press conference there was of course the media management in terms of his announcement. Long negotiations between Michael Meyer and Renaldo Nehemiah, his agent, finally allowed for a window for me to contact Gatlin on Skype and do an interview with him. The questions were sent through in advance as is always done when setting up interviews with athletes for promotional purposes. The interview was conducted at 23h30 SA time due to the time zone difference to the United States and we of course needed to fit in with his schedule. Usually when you interview someone on Skype, or Zoom these days, they are either at a desk or in their “work environment”, in this case the track. Gatlin answered the call and was sitting in his car. A very bizarre setting. But one that made for really good, clear and crisp sound. Gatlin was easy going, amenable and it was very easy to chat to him. Similarly, when I met him when landed in South Africa, he was quick to greet. Nothing surly about him at all.
Out of the Skype video interview a news video was compiled and the sound extracted and these were sent to radio and television sport news media. It was one of the biggest media coups ever. Not a single media house had an inkling of his participation and it was hot news. This was after all the doper, which was the line many media houses took. But he was also the man who had dethroned Usain Bolt and had become World Champion. Something that had the media in frenzy. It was a coup, no doubt.
Race Day – Anaso Jobodwana claims a big scalp.
Tuks Athletics track has never been so packed in its existence. Around 8000 spectators crammed into the stadium. The media tribune has never been this busy. All the local and international TV and Radio News Media attempted to be accredited. Something that South African Athletics had not experienced since the peak of the Engen Grand Prix Summer Series in the late 90’s early 2000’s. The atmosphere was incredible. Electric. Bets were placed as to who could beat Gatlin. Some of us witnessed his start practice and were overawed. We had not seen anyone burst out of the blocks so fast, smoothly and powerfully before. It seemed he was invincible. But altitude, jet lag and lack of race fitness would be the deciding factor. Gatlin had not moved into his race specific training and it told. Especially as he was down to run the 150m, not the 100m, his speciality event.
When gun went, Gatlin was gone. Coming into the home straight he was leading – as expected. But then the wheels came off. The Jet Lag, lack of fitness kicked in and 2015 World Championship 200m Bronze Medalist, Anaso Jobodwana spoiled the party. In the process he dragged two other South Africans to “victory” over Gatlin. Jobodwana won in 15.08, Roscoe Engel (15.17sec) was second with Luxolo Adams’ 15.18sec good enough for third. When Gatlin finished in fourth, Jobodwana was celebrating 20m from the finish line.
While globally Gatlin’s legacy is that of being a doper, and it is doubtful he will ever get over that label, here in South Africa Gatlin’s legacy is way different. The fans loved him. South Africa’s best couldn’t wait to get a piece of him. The excitement for the sport had hit fever pitch in South Africa. The legacy of Gatlin's visit, that of a superstar, is that the sport needs this kind of exposure – global superstars pitted against local stars. If athletics is going to once again fill stadiums and be pre-eminent in the media and be attractive to sponsors, it needs the “Us vs Them” scenario. We want to see Akani Simbine take on Noah Lyles, Ryan Mphalele challenge the likes of Joshua Cheptegei. It is the step up that is needed to infuse passion and excitement again. That is the legacy of the Gatlin visit and the Grand Prix Series. Us vs Them.
Manfred Seidler has been in the media industry in athletics since 1994 having managed the media around a number of SA Track and Field Championships, SA Cross Country Championships and Road Championships. He also was the media account director on the hugely successful Engen Grand Prix Summer Series from 1995 to 1997 before being head hunted by the Television company Octagon CSI. Manfred founded the athletics TV Show Athletics Alive (later to become Engen Gijima) until the sponsor withdrew from the sport in 2003. During that time Manfred had the privilege of traveling the world and meeting and interviewing some of the best athletes in the world while he chased South Africa’s finest around the globe. Manfred resurrected Athletics Alive in 2011 on behalf of SABC and produced the show until 2016. He has covered three Olympic Games (2008/12/16 - was in London for 2012), the Commonwealth Games (2006/10/14/18) and was able to attend three World Championships. Manfred is now an accomplished Media Consultant with Athletics his biggest focus - and still his biggest passion.