WHEN a furious Justin Gatlin left Beijing, boasting he was going “to drop a bomb” in his next race, his manager could only raise a smile.
Renaldo Nehemiah, one of the great athletes of his own era, recognises the fire still burning in Gatlin, one of the most polarising figures in athletics.
Gatlin has twice failed drugs tests and is almost seen as a symbol of the sport’s modern ills. Yet at 33, running faster than ever, the American defies age, biophysics and all logic.
He could even challenge the peerless Usain Bolt, and could be the first ex-Olympic champion to regain the 100 metre crown after serving a drugs ban — a prospect that sits uncomfortably with his critics.
“There’s nothing he can do about the criticism, the bed’s been made,” Nehemiah said in an interview. “But what it does is fuel him. Not from anger but it fuels him to combat the doubters. It gives him that extra chip on his shoulder which he can tunnel into pristine focus.
“He’s a man on a mission. He knows he has only so many races and years left so he’s making every one of them count. It’s not a distraction, it motivates him. It’s like ‘take that!’”
Controversy pursues Gatlin more effectively than most of his 100 m pursuers. The latest drama happened when he stormed out on the eve of yesterday’s Beijing World Challenge meeting, saying organisers showed him a lack of respect by asking him to leave.
Gatlin wanted to compete but organisers were evidently worried he might not be fit enough because of a slight injury he was carrying after setting his fastest-ever time — 9,74 seconds — in Doha last week.
Either way, it again threw Gatlin towards unwelcome headlines and aroused further suspicion that some in the athletics hierarchy see him as an embarrassment.
Nehemiah does not believe there is a conspiracy against Gatlin but does think his client suffers from being misunderstood.
“People who aren’t students of the sport don’t realise he was a phenomenon before he ever got banned. He was going to be as good as he is now, whatever,” Nehemiah said.