Personal Space: Truly Needed and Hardly Granted

Story written by EPelle

Every so often I cross paths with a few specially gifted folks who live in different postal codes than do I - folks who are well-hidden in unlisted locations up in the mountains or outside of the country all together.

You've likely seen them in your neck of the woods, too, as they're the ones with two cars for each day of the week, and have a garage bigger than most of the local houses to store those prized possessions. If you haven't seen them, you've heard them speeding along through the forest at break-neck speeds in their powerful SUV's bearing stickers which state, "Loud Pipes Save Lives".

Whatever works.

Undoubtedly, we've all seen them on television at one time or another and have formed bonds with them... eaten breakfast with them... stayed up late with them... spilled beer over the sofa because of them... bought posters of them when we were kids. And the story goes on one newspaper clipping at a time taped into scrapbooks filled completely past their page limits and stuffed in some dusty box in our parents' atticks and basements.

They are champions - the ones who always seem to win gold, and never seem to lose.

Kids in our small little communities - even those under our own noses and under our own roofs - are doing the same things we did, and, to a certain extent, continue doing today.

Whether you're eight - or 28, you've likely worn your favourite's name across a shirt on your back (or have their names tatooed on your back!) and have had the same heroic figures gracing your bedroom walls - with the exception between you and a kid being the fact that your wives have at some point suggested that you grow up.

These folks whom we hero-worship, I believe, are called athletes - and perhaps one or two of them might reach god-like status along the way.

These superstars walk down a red carpet leading to and from an arena near you, and, deservingly, they are lauded for their efforts and given tremendous respect for putting both feet forward and accomplishing their goals. Most will remain strangers we love, and others will be enemies we bitterly despise and loathe.

Despite our attachments to them, however, we will never really be near enough to them to really know just how far we are from the people behind the achievements - the persons whose mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers and old grade school mates know and call them by the names of Justin... David... Kajsa... Zlatan... Carro... Hicham.

You get the picture.

We watch, salivate and attempt to emulate some of the efforts these highly-trained and exceptionally paid athletes put up in their finest moments, but bemoan them and cast them into yesteryear when the intrigue runs thin... the clock runs out of time... the hero falls down and simply becomes a man... a woman... a person just like you and me - a metamorphosis which shows more sign of weakness than it does of heroism.

When heros fall down our knees buckle, our encouragement begins turning into disdain and our attention gradually focuses on the negative rather than the positives.

It is challenging to find positives when the media alerts us to an esteemed athlete's fall from grace, and even more natural to dwell on faults when we base our knowledge on the little bit of "fact" that we know.

We get stuck in a "negativity" rut and, as time passes along, we see the ultimate result once our previously respected athlete crosses the finish line in their race of infamy: Our children take down their posters from the walls and stuff them under their beds.

Or, in my case, an entire collection of trading cards ends up in a fireplace only to be saved by a mother who knew better and a father who counted the money they were worth.

Of athletes and fame, a couple of lessons I've learned over the years is that the folks who live in the estates overlooking my neighbourhood and several others within 60km of their hilltop views have one thing in common with me - as they do with you: they are simply people.

Yes, they have a few extra tax gurus, two or three more gas cards and a higher credit limit on the plastic they keep in their pockets, but they are still human beings who eat breakfast, occasionally skip lunch, and eat dinner with their feet up on the table watching sports highlights just like you and me.

That's about it.

Well, almost.

They also appear on television more often, stay in a few more hotels each week than I do, ride in a few more limousines on their way to work than do I, and have every word, action, statement and admission recorded for immediate and permanent playback whether they like it or not.

I believe that actually does about sum it up.

Most of that holds true for a man whom we call Gatlin, whose mother calls him Justin. Some school girls on his Facebook page call him "cute".

Justin Gatlin was a high school standout in Florida, an NCAA champion at Tennessee and stood on top of a podium in front of the biggest stage known to man to collect a gold medal he had earned following winning the Olympic 100m final in Athens four years ago.

Everything he put his mind to he accomplished, and his status among the elite in the world was as high as one could reach on this or any other planet.

Today, he's a man hanging on by a three-person arbitration vote hoping that another shot at an Olympic title won't elude him as he stands accused of having doped using testosterone - or one of its precursors - after a urine test taken at the 2006 Kansas Relays yielded positive results from the previous 100m co-world record-holder.

There is a very small possibility that Gatlin, a former member of Trevor Graham's Sprint Capitol group training out of Raleigh, North Carolina, is telling the truth - that he has never doped, but public opinion has already cast a cloud of guilt over his house - and on his property in every literal sense of the word.

Gatlin has come under international fire - to a lesser extent than did Marion Jones, and has at times found reprieve and solace spending time with his parents in Pensacola, Florida - a place where children and adults alike still look up to Gatlin for his previous accomplishments.

Though there are those who have looked up to him and supported him through the anti-doping violation he faces, there are others who have taken matters into their own hands, have closed the case and have pronounced him guilty in a manner and fashion which has been both personal and public for the second-fastest 100m sprinter of all time.

Gatlin spoke to Reuters in a recent telephone interview and described what measures some fans have gone to let him know he let them down.
"I woke up one morning at my parents house, and written on the side of my vehicle there was 'Just Say No to Steroids,'" Gatlin said. "That really hurt.
"I wiped it off and went in the house and broke down. It was painful."

Some people have caused me a bit of pain as well for mistakes I've made along the path of life, but I've never had to be humiliated before my neighbours for it. Then again, I've never held Gatlin's job as ambassador of the sport.

Other athletes - and celebrities for that matter - have fallen off the hero wagon and gone on with their lives after a rough period with their groupies and supporters; being in the spotlight for better of worse is part of the unwritten job description, and one which most handle with care.

At what point, however, do we as fans give these human beings space to sort things out, spend time alone with their families and heal from broken promises they made to their sports, themselves and, especially, to us - the hardcore people, who, just like them, have a dying passion and interest for what they do?

I'd venture to say that fans, for the most part, are quite forgiving of people once they bow their heads, pay their respects for letting people down and saddle back up in a continued pursuit of perfection.

Others, obviously, are not. It depends on the infraction and the degree of remorse athletes -- people -- display, and why they are remorseful. Marion Jones is not a person, for example, whose hand I would reach out to shake had I been in a social situation with her.

Kids demonstrate an even greater ability to rebound from the letdown they face when their superstars tumble.

I can't recall how many times I've heard stories and have seen children tape up the corners of posters ripped down when their dreams were shattered and place them back into the holes in the wall where those people once taught those impressionable minds what striving for the harmonious development of mind and body meant - the agon of sport.

In Gatlin's case, he's faced with pressures he brought upon himself in having chosen a coach who was already mixed up in a scandal of great proportions. He was warned and advised not to join that particular group of people by his agent, Renaldo Nehemiah. Gatlin chose to ignore the caution and exercise his free will to choose for himself. He's paying a high price for those actions today as he may - or not - have participated willlingly in a scheme to defraud the sport of track and field by method of deception and fraud.

Whatever happens to Justin Gatlin, a new person will come along behind him and take over the spot of king of the hill.

Jamaican Asafa Powell has already taken back the world record, having lowered the 100m mark to an amazing 9,74 seconds. American Tyson Gay won three sprint medals at last summer's World Championships, winning the 100m, 200m and running the anchor leg on the victorious 4x100m relay. Gay's aim is to win all three events in Beijing in August.

Gatlin is waiting and hoping that his day before the CAS will soon come so that he can pass go. He wants to return to the sport he loves and in which he has thrived. Some of his fans want him to make a comeback to show the world that it judged him prematurely and should have waited until due process ran its course. Others will remain sceptical no matter what Gatlin does in the future, because his name will forever be linked with drugs.

I have a strong opinion of Gatlin the athlete, but reserve the right to hold it to myself and spare you any bias before his CAS hearing is complete.

Next time I see a person like Justin Gatlin pull out of their truck with those pesky exhaust pipes finally smothered when the key shuts off the engine, however, I'll be a bit less critical and more grateful not necessarily for the days they spent entertaining me on television, but much more so for the fact that they truly are regular people like you and me... humbled and down-to-earth on the inside.

Something tells me that I still will likely never know where a person like him has his post delivered, however, unless their kid winds up trading player cards with mine - whenever they are born.

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