The 35-year-old American, who has twice served bans for doping and been paraded as the ugly face of the sport, was jeered by spectators at the Queen Elizabeth Stadium in his races before Saturday night’s final.
There were boos when his name was announced before the final and a marked silence when he won the race in the season’s best time of 9.92 seconds.
It was his first victory over Bolt at a major championship. After his triumph, Gatlin turned his guns on the pundits and commentators who have painted a negative picture of his abilities.
“What do I do that makes me the bad boy?” he demanded. “Do I talk bad about anybody? Do I do bad gestures? I don’t. I shake every athletes’ hand? I congratulate them. I tell them good luck. That doesn’t sound like the traits of a bad boy to me.
“It just seems that the media wants to sensationalise and make me the bad boy because Usain is a hero. I know you’ve got to have a black hat and a white hat, but really, people know I keep it classy and never talk bad. I try to inspire other athletes and I try to stay in my lane – literally. So I don’t see where the bad boy comes from.”
Though his present persona might be squeaky clean, Gatlin does have a murky backstory. In 2001, while still at college, he was given a two-year suspension for taking a banned amphetamine.
He successfully argued it was medication for attention deficit disorder and was allowed to return to competition after a year.
Then, in 2006 – having won the 100m and 200m double at the 2005 world championships in Helsinki – he tested positive again, this time for testosterone.
Gatlin was suspended for eight years but avoiding a lifetime ban in exchange for his co-operation with doping authorities. This suspension was halved to four years on appeal.
Jeers ‘difficult to understand’
His return came two years after Bolt had become the big noise in athletics having won the sprint double at the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and set world records on his way to golds in the 100m and 200m at the Berlin world championships in 2009.
Gatlin said he was bemused by the catcalls and the antagonism. “I really don’t need to understand it,” he reflected. “I wasn’t booed in 2010. I wasn’t booed in 2011 at the world championships in Daegu. I wasn’t booed here in London at the Olympics in 2012. I wasn’t booed in 2013 at the Moscow world championships nor in 2015 at the Beijing world championships. But since the Rio Olympics in 2016, I’m booed.
“At the end of the day all I can understand is the rivalry I have with Usain but it’s not a bitter rivalry. I respect the man to the utmost and every time we’ve come across the finishing line, I have shaken his hand. I’ve given him a hug and told him congratulations and that’s all that really matters to me.
I’m a runner. I’m back in the sport. I’ve done my time. I’ve done community service, I’ve talked to kids to walk the right path. And that’s all I can do. Society does that with people who have made mistakes.”
Bolt added: “Over the years I’ve always said Justin has done his time. And if he’s here, it means he’s OK. I’ve always respected him as a competitor who has worked hard over the years. And he is one of the best I’ve ever competed with. I’ve always known that if I don’t show up with my best, he’s going to win.
“Here in London, he showed up and he was the better man in the final and he executed well. So, for me, he deserves to be here.”
Whether that endorsement from the self-anointed living legend will stave off the boo-boys at Sunday evening’s 100m medal ceremony remains to be seen. Gatlin has upstaged their hero in his farewell race. Unforgiveable.