The Olympic Redemption Song- Usain Bolt, Justin Gatlin and Forgiveness

As I watched Usain Bolt soar into the record books last night, winning his third-consecutive 100 meter Olympic gold medal, I couldn’t help but think about the man who finished in second place. Not to take away from Bolt, who is now the greatest sprinter in history and deserves all the accolades that come his way.

He is unequivocally the greatest athlete I’ve ever watched that makes things look positively effortless.

I just happened to find myself wondering about the silver medalist, who was lustily booed — as he likely finished his career — and rejected by many Olympic fans. 12 years earlier, many of those fans cheered him after he won the 100 meter gold medal at the 2004 Athens Olympics.

Those cheers came two years before it was revealed that he used performance-enhancing drugs in 2006. Gatlin was handed a four-year ban from the sport at that time(originally eight years), tantamount to a sporting “death sentence.”

The “Old” Man in the Arena

Justin Gatlin is now 34 years-old. Incredibly, he is the oldest man to ever medal in an Olympic track event, which raises suspicions on its own. His is perhaps the most fascinating and disappointing case in Olympic history. In the shadow of one of the greatest athletes of all-time, these past eight years, Gatlin has persevered and made his way back to near the pinnacle of his sport.

In most events, Gatlin has played second fiddle to Bolt, serving as his chief competitor. Gatlin’s personal success has received scorn and dismay from many who are not willing to give him a second chance. Maybe he deserves it. Maybe he doesn’t. The willingness to forgive or judge is up to us.

The story of Justin Gatlin, along with other athletes who have previously cheated, either features a redemptive angle or outright condemnation. I choose to believe in redemption. If (and admittedly, that could be a big IF) he has been drug-free, Gatlin’s story is remarkable. He has won gold, silver and bronze at three separate Olympics in the 100M over a 12-year stretch.

After a crazy amount of adversity, he kept going. At a time long past when other people would have — and have — quit, he is still the second-fastest man in the world. We all remember the winners — and understandably so.

It simply may be a good thing in this instance to remember the example of the man who finished second, the one who picked himself up, dusted himself off and kept persevering to become his best.

Gatlin’s Story

Gatlin won all three colors of medal at the 2004 Olympic Games, receiving the bronze in the 200 meters and the silver as part of the 4x100 meter relay team. Then came professional endorsements, offers to compete in lucrative track and field competitions and even a try-out with the Houston Texans.

After a rocket-like ascent to the top, Justin Gatlin was stopped dead in his tracks.

Gatlin was informed by the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) in July of 2006 that he tested positive for a banned substance in April of that year. In an instant, the former gold medalist in the 100 meter dash at the 2004 Athens summer games found his world crashing down around him.

For four years, an athlete in the prime of his career, at the apex of his sport — who had become the face of American track and field — would have to let his otherworldly speed rest from athletic competition.

Over those next several years, Gatlin watched as the new champion of the world, Bolt, captured the gold medal in the 100m, 200m and 4x100m relay race for Jamaica at the Beijing Olympics and the London games. Bolt became the king of track and field and still proudly wears the crown. Gatlin had plenty of time to wonder.

During his time off, he found inspiration in his faith and the comfort from fans and a very supportive inner circle.

“I’ve been through some dark paths. What really has been able to help me keep my faith was the faith of my fans. Them believing in me, wanting me to come back, knowing I’m a true athlete, a legit athlete.” — Justin Gatlin

Following his ban from the sport in July 2006, even Gatlin had to doubt whether his Olympic dream would come true again. Several years later, through exceptional dedication and unwavering belief, he dared to be the greatest in the world again in London. Then again last night in Rio.

Cheating and Forgiveness

Track and Field has a long history of cheating and doping. Whether you believe Gatlin’s excuse that he was essentially sabotaged by his massage therapist 10 years ago or you don’t, I believe he did the time for his crime. He was busted and his reputation was sullied.

I think about this story in the context of our willingness to forgive as a culture. American swimmer Lilly King, who won two gold medals at these Rio Olympics, was quick to come out against those caught using steroids.

“No, do I think people who have been caught doping should be on the team? They shouldn’t. It is unfortunate we have to see that.” — Lilly King

King’s comments struck me as severe and frankly, Draconian. Any of us who have ever competed honestly for anything, or simply been victimized in a relationship or business dealing, truly loathe cheaters. There should be zero tolerance for the action of cheating and there is no condoning cheating of any kind in this piece.

However, once someone has made a mistake, they deserve another opportunity. They deserve a shot to redeem themselves.

We all make mistakes. While I grant you, knowingly cheating is different than innocently failing, I wonder where would we be as a society — and who would we be as people — if we never forgave anyone? If we constantly vilified individuals for every mistake?

I find the best stories are ones of redemption, where an athlete, musician, heck, a carpenter or any other individual is able to overcome adversity and follow a well disciplined, successful path back from their personal abyss.

Some will choose to dismiss Justin Gatlin and relegate him forever to the dungeon of cheaters. Many are happy to see him go. Not me. I believe in forgiveness. It’s a virtue that our society needs more of these days. An open, accepting mindset is one of the best qualities of an individual.

Writing Our Redemption Song

I want to see those who have overcome their past and made the most of themselves get some credit- and respect for what they’ve accomplished. It’s disheartening to watch fellow humans figuratively cast each other to the proverbial leper colony of moral wrongness, forever.

Sooner or later, we’re all going to get knocked down. We’re going to do something stupid or make a mistake. We may not cheat but we may hurt someone close to us. We may end up letting someone — or many people — down in a way we never imagined was possible. We’re going to want to seek forgiveness and hope we receive it privately and perhaps publicly.

As we write our own redemption song of forgiveness, we’ll seek comfort in knowing that someone was willing to give us another chance. Hopefully we’ll make the most of it.

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