"All of a sudden people were saying that my [ NCAA] titles were because I was on drugs," Gatlin said.
He continued running in college meets (there is no reciprocity between the NCAA and the IAAF) and had his ban lifted after one year, in July 2002. The governing body included a statement that Gatlin's use of the drug included "a genuine medical explanation."
Gatlin left Tennessee after just two years and joined coach Trevor Graham's thriving sprint stable in Raleigh. Of course, it wasn't thriving for long. In the fall of '02 Marion Jones and Tim Montgomery left Graham. "I was starting over," Graham says. "Justin was there to work hard."
Gatlin's first outdoor meet as a professional was in Mexico City in the spring of 2003, and he tore his left hamstring during the 200 meters, an injury that didn't heal that season and sapped his aggressiveness. He kept a heavy wrap on the hammy--"I was afraid of getting hurt again," he says--but Graham finally took it off one afternoon in July 2003. "He had to stop leaning on it," says Graham.
With a year's solid training behind him, Gatlin nearly beat Greene in the 100 at this year's U.S. Olympic Trials, running a personal best of 9.92. He was, however, overshadowed by the competition in Athens. The 6'3", 21year-old Powell had beaten Greene twice in meets leading up to the Games and ran powerfully in early-round races. "The most impressive [running] I've ever seen," said two-time 400-meter gold medalist Michael Johnson. Crawford ran his first-round heat in a baseball cap turned backward ("The inner cooler for my supercharger," he said), and Greene looked good and sounded confident while bidding to repeat as Olympic 100-meter champion. "Gonna be a party, and you're all invited," he said after his second-round race.
The party, as it turned out, was for Gatlin. After coasting in behind Crawford in his semifinal, Gatlin got a massage in a small building near the warmup track while watching Graham's camcorder tape of the semis. "You need the best start of your life in the final," Graham said.
Gatlin got it, taking the lead from the first stride and never giving it up. The race was an instant classic. Crawford ran 9.89 and didn't win a medal. Powell ran 9.94 and wasn't close to medaling. "Ten flat, sixth place," said 2003 world champion Kim Collins of St. Kitts and Nevis, reciting his time and position. "That's a fast race."
Because of Gatlin's previous suspension and his association with Graham (who has had five of his athletes banned and admitted last Sunday that he was the coach who turned in the THG-tainted syringe that triggered the ongoing BALCO investigation), he was asked after the race if he was clean. He declared that he was. He will further declare how fast he is when he runs a leg on the U.S.'s heavily favored 4�100-meter relay and the 200 meters, with a chance at becoming the first man since Carl Lewis in 1984 to win gold in the 100 and the 200.
The drug question had also been raised the previous night, when Yuliya Nesterenko of Belarus won the women's 100 in 10.93 seconds. That was .36 faster than her best time before this year, a dramatic improvement for a 25-year-old, but Nesterenko denied using drugs. Just behind her, Williams won her silver and prompted suspicion that she was on a sugar high. "I came here to make the final, so this is a super, duper extra added bonus," said Williams.
Williams won the outdoor NCAA 100 in June and maintained that form all the way to Athens. Her first love was basketball, but, she says, "I sucked." Sprinting for Miami coach Amy Deem, Williams has developed a professional start to complement her world-class acceleration.