Cape Town - In an exclusive interview, five-time Olympic medallist JUSTIN GATLIN talks about launching a sports development programme in South Africa, Wayde van Niekerk’s comeback and defying father time…
Sport24 asked: What was it like visiting Cape Town for the first time?
Justin Gatlin: It felt great to be in Cape Town and we enjoyed the people and the views. I had been to Johannesburg for a little bit two years ago and the capital of South Africa - Pretoria - but this was my first time in Cape Town, which is a special place. I am excited for what lies ahead for the Born 2 Be Elite programme. The numbers are here in South Africa, as are the people and talent. We just have to connect it together. We want to knock these kids on the side of the head and say, “Hey, you are talented athletes and you have gifts and gold.” Our goal is to nurture that in any way possible.”
Sport24 asked: Who did you draw inspiration from as a young athlete?
Justin Gatlin: Carl Lewis was definitely a role model. However, I had to watch film of his career and didn’t grow up watching him per se. Once I found out that track and field was an organised sport, the era I followed more closely was that of Maurice Greene and Michael Johnson. I’m a big believer in the notion that to know where you are going, you have to know where everything has been. I did studies and research in order to find out who was the fastest, who won gold medals, what made them great and I took learnings from their training and techniques. I take bits and pieces from their career and try put it in me. Track and field is definitely a science and each year as an athlete you try to develop and become stronger. You try to find something that you can use to be a better athlete every year. For argument’s sake, it could be something small like changing something in your block technique to something big where you want to try to implement a whole different training regimen.
Sport24 asked: How do you reflect upon your time off the track?
Justin Gatlin: I think it was both a gift and a curse in a way (Gatlin served two doping bans). It was a blessing in that I was able to sustain my legs and my body to go this long but I was also able to find myself. At that point in time in my life and career, I was a young man at 23 years of age and I didn’t know who I was as a person. I was swept into the world of track and field at the age of 19, turned pro, had a full scholarship and a bag of money. So I didn’t know what it meant to grow as a man and I never knew what I liked. With that time off from the sport, I was able to discover myself and I think it helped recharge and rejuvenate me. It also gave me a different sense of guidance once I came back into the sport and what I really wanted to achieve. I managed to make a successful comeback by believing in myself and listening to that small voice that says, “You still have more to go and more to give.” It helped me get back on that horse and keep going forward. It’s easier for people to doubt you and for you to doubt yourself. I think it’s harder to say, “You know what, I know who I am as an athlete and a person and I’m going to stick to that.” When it comes to what I would tell my 23-year-old self now, I’d say, “Stay focused on who you are, retain your hunger and keep your circle small.”
Sport24 asked: What value did Usain Bolt bring to your career?
Justin Gatlin: What Usain brought to my career is that he helped me identify how strong I am because after every defeat I had I was able to go back and say, “Ok, this is what I need to tweak and this is what I need to do better.” For instance, I need to be a better starter, a smarter runner or a better finisher.” That helped me become a more complete athlete. Technically, I never actually faced Usain at his peak but I think that what I brought to the table for him was that when he was at his peak he didn’t have true competition and I believe I brought him competition. I was relentless and didn’t lie down. I didn’t want to grab popcorn and just enjoy the show - I wanted to be part of the show. After Usain departed the sport, we had a conversation in which he commended me on my resilience and for being able to push him to keep going and running faster. There are a lot of athletes who don’t like practicing and only enjoy competing but you can’t have one without the other. When Usain watched me train and compete, I think it gave him so kind of fire to keep going. My so-called rivalry with him was definitely sensationalised by the media to a certain extent and we actually had a mutual friendship. We never had any kind of ill-will towards each other. When you are top competitors of course there is always going to be some kind of friction because both of you are determined to be the best. However, I definitely have to take my hat off to Usain. The warm embrace we shared after the 100m race at the 2017 World Championships in London goes to show the world that true competitors are still able to enjoy each other and ours was a gentlemen’s rivalry.
Sport24 asked: At the age of 37, how do you stay motivated?
Justin Gatlin: For me, in terms of my ‘why’, I just feel like I’m not finished and I want to be that athlete who taps himself out of talent and just say, “You know what, I’m going to leave my track and field cleats at the finish line and I’m done.” That is when my retirement is going to be. You have to realise that what Roger Federer, Serena Williams and Tom Brady are doing is that they are changing the face of the sport. Sport is about youth to a certain extent but you have to have garner knowledge and number of athletes only gain a little bit of knowledge and then they get to a point in their career and it’s over because they are not willing to learn more. When you see the aforementioned athletes at the highest level, the reason they have been in the game for so long is because they are prepared to keep learning. They are willing to keep duplicating their success over and over again and they want to go beyond just being human, they want to be machine-like. What helps you grow as a person and an athlete is to be able to stay, “This is my new goal I want to set for the year.” Speaking from experience in the world of competitive athletics, it’s the same thing every year: Train, get ready, start line, guns goes off; you try to finish first and hit the finish line. As you advance through the ranks, the rewards get bigger but you want to be entertained within yourself.
Sport24 asked: Your outlook on Wayde van Niekerk’s abilities?
Justin Gatlin: Wayde is the man - he broke an unbeatable record (Van Niekerk beat Michael Johnson’s 43.18 sec 400m world record in 2016 with a time of 43.03). It can soothe your appetite but knowing Wayde and spending time away - through injury - that won’t soothe his appetite for more success. He is the kind of runner who is god sent. He is an athlete who believes that what he does is going to help and inspire others in the world of athletics. I think Wayde’s time away from the sport is only going to make him stronger and faster. From the little birds chirping around, I hear that the times he’s running in practice is parallel to the times he was running before he got injured! Unfortunately, he trained so hard that he re-injured himself. However, you have to understand that this man is going to do amazing things and is going to inspire. It won’t be because of what his accolades are on the track but due to his comeback. In life, a lot of people fall short in that they don’t understand the blueprint of getting back up. Many want to be successful but don’t know how to get up from a fall. For me, Wayde will show the world who he truly is by getting up from this fall.
Sport24 asked: What are you still keen to achieve in your career?
Justin Gatlin: I want to get ready for Tokyo 2020. It’s important to me because my son wants to go and I want to be able to take him there. I think it would be a special gift to him. Meanwhile, it’s a teaser to have the first World Championships on home soil in 2021. It would be special to conclude my career at the World Championships in Eugene, Oregon but I’m going to take it one year at a time.
Sport24 asked: Three dream dinner guests, who would they be?
Justin Gatlin: I would invite Jay-Z. What he has done has revolutionized hip-hop. For a while, it was only cool to be a young rapper and when you hit 30, you were regarded as an old rapper and told to give it up because you have nothing to really rap about. Jay-Z helped change that perception and showed that adults can have fun, grow and then rap about it and deliver a message of success. You don’t have to call time on your career owing to age and I think that is what everyone is stuck on. According to society, you have to get married at a certain age, have a child at a certain age and go ahead and retire at a certain age. However, if you have a gift and talent that’s been given to you, you should be able to use it for as long as you can, especially if it’s inspiring others. I would also definitely invite former US president Barack Obama. We would have to play some basketball afterwards to keep him around! British actor Damson Idris from crime drama Snowfall would also crack an invite. If I had to get someone to play me in a film of my life it would be him because he is a great actor and is on the rise. In terms of food, I have a great cook in the form of my wife and, being from Trinidad and Tobago, she would definitely prepare a Trinny delight. As far as the soundtrack goes, each of my guests could bring three songs they would like to listen to and it would make up the party’s playlist.