US’ Tyson Gay competes in the men’s 100m heats at the athletics event of the London 2012 Olympic Games on August 4, 2012 in London. Image Credit: AFP

London: Tyson Gay is learning about the value of positivity and perspective. It is the way of the loser. It is the discriminating hand that life deals us when, no matter how hard we work and how dedicated we are to our chosen profession, we come up short.

Gay knows a thing or two about coming up short, sometimes in the tiniest fraction of a second, and in other times by the margin of a hair’s breadth.

The second fastest man in the world has seen innumerable re-runs of the men’s 100m finals in the Olympic Park and is incapable of coming up with a plausible answer on why he came fourth. Why did he not, in a small but desperate measure, think of leaning forward a little more at the tape to win that Olympic bronze which went to Justin Gatlin?

It wasn’t really the bronze that Gay wanted that night. He was primed to win the gold, like every proud sprinter worth his salt. Fate decreed otherwise; not because it was impartial to Gay, but because even the providence finds it difficult to catch up and issue a speeding ticket to a man called Bolt.

Gay owns the third fastest 100m time in history of 9.69 seconds, after Bolt’s world record of 9.58, and he strode the world of athletics like a colossus until the advent of the young, flamboyant and super-fast Jamaican. Winning the 100m and 200m at the world championships in Osaka was Gay’s significant moment.

Already 29 years old and without an Olympic medal, Gay is desperate to throw in the dice for one final tryst with his destiny. For that he will have to wait four more years, until the Games in Rio in 2016.

What Gay would want to learn most about now is the significance of redemption. His voice quivering with emotion he tried to recall the night of the men’s 100m finals.

“It’s tough man,” he confessed, the pain staring right out of his eyes.

“I didn’t get a lot of sleep. I think the pain was no different than when you go through injuries and you just keep trying to put it behind you and keep pushing to move forward. I’ve been through a lot this year, man. I’m not making excuses, but mentally you just have to stay focused and strong and realise that, once the Olympics are out of the way, then people are going to look ahead at the world championships; then they are going to wait for the Diamond League,” he said.

“Once things start winding down this year, I’ll be ready to refocus on the world championships and then begin to set my goals for the next Olympics. I’ve made my mind up: I’m going to go for it. I want to continue training, work hard and go to Rio in 2016.”

While it is easy to understand why Gay is going through the pain, it is difficult to imagine the extent to which he is bowed down by it. He sounds like a man who has been beaten to the post by a shattered spirit. Few recover from a blow of that nature, but Gay is quietly resolute to fight back, no matter what the cost.

“People don’t understand how I feel. I’m getting a lot of text messages from friends and family and they tell me ‘hey Tyson, you got to compete. We can’t even get a ticket to come and see you’. They are proud of me. When you are on the outside looking in, the Olympics can be a great experience on the TV – you see all the fans and the flashes — but for me it’s all about winning and nothing else.

“I try not to be too materialistic about stuff like that, but that’s something that I think athletes individually value: it’s something that we work so hard for every four years and that’s what sucks about it. You can make fresh plans if you fail, but before that you have to go through the same old formalities like the Olympic trials and stuff like that. So it’s not given to you easy — that’s a tough one to swallow. It is all about winning and, if you don’t win, it’s about getting a medal so at least you have good memories and that’s just what it is.”

Gay has a brilliance that the world of athletics may never really appreciate unless he wins an Olympic medal. On his day, he is faster than most of the best in the business. This makes it tragic to see him hunched up, feeling the pain of recollection, as if his brain is being put through a shredder. One cannot help but coax him into trying to share the post-race specifics, as shattering as they might have been for him.

“It was very tough emotionally man,” he said. Then looking at me straight in the face he asked, “You want details?”

“If you care to share,” I replied.

Gay took a deep sigh and drew in his breath, as if to signify that he was letting me into his most personal space.

“Once I got to the back I started to cry because I didn’t feel it was fair. Every athlete wants a medal man,” he reasoned. “Life sometimes gives you a bad hand. I have been through so much and I have worked so hard. I just really thought that I deserved a medal.

“When I got back I sat down. I was sitting across from Asafa Powell, who finished last after injuring himself. I saw the pain in his eyes. He was with his agent and was being consoled. I gave him some dap (touch fists). He was going through tough pain like I was. Then once I saw John Drummond (Gay’s coach) I started to cry and he understood. He couldn’t say that I didn’t do my best, or that I had a bad start, or whatever. He couldn’t say none of that. He just said that I know you gave it your all. Once he said that I just began to bawl man, because I did give it my all and there was nothing else that I could offer by way of excuses.

“So I went back to do my drug test. When I had to do the testing I realised that my hands were shaking, man. I couldn’t put my pee into the bottle because there was just one thought that kept crashing into my head: what if this is my last Olympics? It was tough.”

At this moment Gay’s voice breaks and a sob escapes through his mouth.

His repeated battles with providence have made Gay into a bit of a realist. He has learnt to expect nothing, in order to blunt the pain of disappointment and failure if it comes. The reverses, whether they be physical, medical, or on the race track, have dimmed a clear view of an athlete who, by dint of talent, a preternatural work ethic and the ability to stay grounded and focused at all times, has forged a distinguished career in athletics. This is why an Olympic medal, of any hue, would be vital to him. It would be a validation of his talent and effort.

“If it comes, then it comes,” he reasoned. “If it don’t, then it don’t. I just want to compete. I just want a medal, man. I want to go to the trials. I don’t want it to end without giving it my all. I don’t want to say things like I am going to be 33 years old in Rio. I don’t want to say none of that. I want to bring home a medal even if it is a medal in the 4x100 — it would fill up a small hole in my heart. You understand what I’m saying? I want to bring home some hardware.

“I been doing this for my family, my friends, my sponsors and they’ve been supporting me for so long and it sucks that I want to give something to them that I can’t give. I keep going through a lot of stuff, but I can only be who I am. It seems like I haven’t been blessed with a medal yet, but I have been blessed with all the other things. It seems like I help other people reach their goals.”

The fact that Justin Gatlin served time for a positive dope test and came in to win the bronze medal has definitely left a bad taste in Gay’s mouth. He struggles to find the grace to put it all in context and then manages to hover between bad luck and cynicism.

“Honestly, it’s a little bit of both man. Sometimes you look at it and say it’s bad luck and then you can say ‘hell, you didn’t need to train that much’. I believe that I’ve been blessed with a gift, but I got no excuses. What the whole Gatlin thing, he got the medal and I didn’t. it is what it is. He had a little more luck than I did.”

This is why hope and belief come in small packages for Gay. When all else was lost and he was looking for a reason to stay in the game a tweet from a fan forced him into introspection.

“My decision to go to Rio came from a follower on Twitter. The fan told me ‘Tyson please tell me you are going to go for another Olympics.’ Rio is a long way away, but I don’t want to be known as a quitter.”

Gay needs that Olympic medal and he has no choice but to wait another four years for it. He knows that should he fail, there will always be a symbolic asterisk on his record, a sense of incompleteness. * The fastest man never to have won an Olympic medal.