I am a Bolt lover and fanatic. Not because he is a winner but because he came from my kind of background, an underdog. I love the showmanship, the confidence, being himself wherever, his ability to rise above the limelight pressure and keep his discipline to execute. And yes, I love most things from the island of Jamaican.
In the world of sports (in fact, in life), people mainly love, adore and support winning teams. It is very easy for other competitors, who are trying to beat the champion, to be seen as “haters” by fans! Their offences are usually just trying to be the best in what they do, being themselves, working harder, not giving up to setbacks and a quest for change. Woe unto you if the Champion you are trying to beat is one sent from the gods themselves, like Jamaican sprint king Usain Bolt.
American sprinter Justin Gatlin has suffered all these and more, mostly undeserved.
Gatlin is not an ordinary athlete. He is a speed beast on those 100m tracks, one of the fastest men the world has ever seen. A Champion, hated for his quest to be the best against the best. He has made mistakes, with doping, along the way like many of us in our field of professional endeavours. Mostly we got away with queries, surcharges and suspensions but we were allowed to get back to our professions, practice and excel.
Gatlin has endured the frustration of spending your most vibrant years, as an athlete, under the shadows of another man, and for years and seasons, he has hit the starting blocks with the hope that Bolt gives in. That frustration can make any young man with that strong desire do silly things.
Let us not forget that Bolt came in from nowhere to cut short the reign of Gatlin after the latter and Tyson Gay staged a coup against Kim Collins in the struggle to succeed the great Maurice Greene. Gatlin was a unanimous successor, sitting pretty with an Olympic 100m gold in Athens 2004 and a World Championship Gold in Helsinki 2005 before the Jamaican rudely interrupted American party.
On his way to the 100m Gold in Athens, Gatlin had demolished Ghana’s highest hopes of Olympic sprint medal represented by the fearsome 3: Eric Nkansah, Leonard Myles-Mills and Aziz Zakari who was in the final but placed out of the medal zone.
So Gatlin was hitting the form of his life when Bolt surfaced and for the next decade and over, he and his American contingent sprinters are to play subordinate to a tall junior from the Highlands of Jamaica. How cool do you expect that to be?
Why am I running commentary on this event, on the eve of my Birthday, a day marking 20+1 years in my journey into professional Television career?
Well, I have been a Gatlin for a number of times. When proving to yourself that you are the best means challenging the much loved champion, an abomination. When striving hard to be the best you can is only seen as envy or hatred for the champion. Very painful moments when you believe you can be the best and you are being asked to wait for your turn.
What is admirable about Justin Gatlin is he never gave up, never lost confidence in himself, never doubted his ability and he never allowed his past mistakes bring him down. He mounted the starting blocks every time beside Bolt, took the boos and jeers, took the medal his efforts could get him and came back the next race believing he can be the best (not beat Bolt), just the best. They may have their different personalities, Bolt can perform on the tracks as well wow the fans and Gatlin just works hard on the tracks without the showmanship and crowd entertainment.
For some of us (including Bolt and Gatlin), we would not strive to be over achievers if we were not considered as such underdogs (a la Tanya Stephens). So you have to work twice or three times as hard. If you listen to the crowd, you will lose focus because their duty is to be loud. As one of my favourite Jamaican singers Beres Hammond sings:
“Once you are in, you’ve got to take, make your mind up son and face it because Warriors don’t cry…
Lots of people will hate you, not because they want to, but sometimes they just don’t even know why”
To all my Gatlin fellows, hated because you want to change the status quo, booed because you prove your worth against a son of the Zeus, just be yourself and don’t give up. In our profession, at work, with friends, in church, in school and even in families, we face the discomfort of coming up against the crowd favourites. Respect the rules of life but don’t let them tie you down. Respect fellow competitors but believe in your ability to be the best.
A twist to the Bolt-Gatlin story is the sub-let of promising Jamaican sprinter Johan Blake, who is seen as heir apparent to Usain Bolt. Blake also had doping problems and served his sanction.
However, Blake is never antagonized by Bolt fans, in fact on the fateful day, he was welcomed with a loud applause, while Gatlin walked in to a chorus of disdainful boos. Perhaps is it because as fantastic as Blake is on the tracks, he has chosen to wait for his turn and not stand up to Bolt? But this Game of Sprint Thrones, age is the chilly Winter and at 35 years, Gatlin is on the front line, further than the 30-year-old Bolt and a much younger Blake of 27 years.
In the end, when you prove to yourself (not to anyone) that you are the best, you will earn the respect of all. Gatlin spoilt a World Athletics party and the cameras did not miss his healing, his continuous weeping on the ground and on all four limbs.
All the pent up and mixed emotions he had suppressed just to keep going. The scenes after the race confirms the respect Gatlin has for the talent and ability of Bolt. Gatlin climaxes it with a genuinely respectful bow, on his knees, to the approaching Legend he had just beaten.
The hug from Bolt says it all, of appreciation and of respect. To me, Bolt would have wanted that fairy tale golden ending we all wished for him, but even without that, it was obvious he was happy he lost to a Gatlin and not anyone else. He lost to a warrior, a True Champion, a man whose stiff competition over the years had pushed him to greater achievements.
If you have never been a Gatlin before, then perhaps you have never challenged the status quo vigorously yet. I have been a Gatlin repeatedly (without doping though) and believe me if I say, I am happy it was Gatlin who beat our Bolt and the world must accord him all the respect he deserves as a champion. He made Bolt more enjoyable for us.
Congratulations to the World Champion Justin Gatlin!
Farewell to the Legend Usain Bolt! You are irreplaceable, and this generation is grateful to the gods of the game for making us see you in our lifetime.
By Astus Kwasi Ahiagble