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First he walked the race, a slow 100meter stroll down the straightaway of Olympic Stadium late Sunday night, trying to summon his courage. Around him more than 60,000 spectators clapped in time to the rollicking Greek folk song Syrtaki, while the runners he would soon face preened, stretched and even danced along to the blasting music. Justin Gatlin took deliberate steps on the hard, orange track, gently moving his lips. Got to run ... got to run ... got to run until my heart explodes. � Gatlin is just 22, blessed with speed and fortified with the resolve that comes from having survived two events that threatened his future: an unfairly harsh drug suspension when he was just a teenager and a terrible injury in his first outdoor professional race, only 15 months ago. "Two times I thought my career was over, and I wasn't even started yet," says Gatlin. "I had to find something in myself." So late this spring Gatlin got a new tattoo: LIVE TO FIGHT, FIGHT TO LIVE.
He was not supposed to win the gold medal at these Olympics. The pundits favored Gatlin's training partner, the flamboyant Shawn Crawford. Or the scary-fast young Jamaican Asafa Powell. ("It looks as if the gold medal is going back to Jamaica," said 1996 gold medalist Donovan Bailey, a native of the island who ran for Canada, on the day before the final.) Or perhaps Maurice Greene, if he could find one more fast race to cap a brilliant career. But when the gun was fired on Sunday night, there was Gatlin blazing through the thick Athenian air, holding perfect form until he clenched his fists in the desperate final 10 meters, hitting the line in 9.85 seconds, .01 off Bailey's Olympic record. It was the first 100-meter race in which four men went under 9.90, a race that now stands alongside the '91 Worlds (six men under 10 flat, but just two under 9.90) and 2001 Worlds (five sub-10s into a headwind) as one of the swiftest ever. Francis Obikwelu of Portugal closed for second in 9.86, and Greene got his second Olympic individual medal in 9.87, his 10th career race under 9.90. Just an eyeblink separated the first four men to finish, but for Gatlin it was "like I was 100 miles away from everybody else, like there was nobody else in the race at the end."
Gatlin was not only the youngest Olympic 100-meter gold medalist since America's Jim Hines (six months younger) in 1968 but also older than three of the other five U.S. sprint medalists in the first five days of this Olympic track and field competition. The night before Gatlin's win, Lauryn Williams, 20, took silver in the women's 100, and while it was the first time since 1976 that the U.S. hadn't won the event in a nonboycotted Games, it was a remarkable run for Williams, who turned professional in July after three years at the University of Miami. On Monday night another 20-year-old, Jeremy Wariner, who was the NCAA 400-meter champion this year as a sophomore at Baylor, led a U.S. sweep of the 400 in Athens. (Twenty-two-year-old Otis Harris took silver, and Derrick Brew got bronze.)
It wasn't only the American kids who were asserting themselves. On Friday the remarkable Ethiopian runner Kenenisa Bekele, 22, won the 10,000 meters in an Olympic record 27:05.10. He ran the second half of the race in 13:15, his last mile in 4:03 and his last 400 meters in 53.02, denying 31-year-old countryman Haile Gebrselassie his third consecutive 10K gold medal.
The changing of the guard proceeded on Sunday as well, when two of the world's greatest track athletes failed to medal in their specialties. Just after 8 p.m. in Athens, Gail Devers's injured left calf gave out before she cleared a single obstacle in the first round of the 100-meter hurdles, failing for the fifth time to earn a medal in the Olympics in an event in which she has won three golds and two silvers at the Worlds. Less than two minutes after Devers's crash, Paula Radcliffe of Great Britain dropped out of the women's marathon. In a heartbreaking 10,000 meters four years ago in Sydney, Radcliffe led for nearly every step before getting outkicked and finishing fourth. Two years later she ran her first marathon and last year lowered the world record by a stunning 1:53, to 2:15:25. Here, in 90� heat, she faltered while running in fourth with just under four miles to go, pulling up and weeping uncontrollably as a sea of Union Jacks awaited her at the finish.
U.S. marathoner Deena Kastor reached the finish that Radcliffe did not. The 104-pound, 31-year-old Waltham, Mass., native, who nearly gave up running to open a bagel shop eight years after finishing her college career at Arkansas, ran a beautifully paced race, picking off one spent athlete after another to win the bronze. It was the first medal in a marathon for an American since Joan Benoit's historic gold 20 years ago in Los Angeles. Upon entering Panathinaiko Stadium, used for the revival of the modern Olympics in 1896, Kastor heard that she was in third place and, like Radcliffe, began to weep. "I couldn't control myself," she said afterward.
There was a time when Gatlin couldn't control himself, either. Of course, he was four years old, living with his parents and three older siblings in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. "He would never walk anywhere," says his mother, Jeanette. "He would run. And he would hurdle the fire hydrants, which in New York are about every 20 feet."
The family moved to Pensacola, Fla., when Gatlin was seven. He poured most of his creative energy into art. "I don't think a nerd would call himself a nerd, but I was quiet," says Gatlin. He began running track in junior high and blossomed as a sprinter in 11th grade. As a freshman at Tennessee he won the outdoor NCAA 100- and 200-meter titles. Less than a month later, he tested positive for an amphetamine contained in medicine he had been taking for attention deficit disorder since he was nine, resulting in a two-year ban by track and field's international governing body.
"He called me and cried so hard when he told me about it," says his mother. "He had been taking this drug since he was a little boy, and the IAAF threw the book at him." Had any official declared Gatlin's use of the drug on an IAAF form, he would not have been banned.