Once again, Gay walked away empty-handed from the Olympics when he finished fourth in the 100-meter final that was dominated by Usain Bolt on Sunday night.
"I tried, man," Gay said as tears streamed down his face. "I tried my best."
With Gatlin, it was never about effort, only whether he would get another chance. He made the most of it, chasing Bolt and his Jamaican teammate Yohan Blake to the wire, before winding up with the bronze.
Eight years ago, Gatlin was on top of the sprint world after winning gold in Athens. But he tested positive for excessive testosterone in 2006, leading to a four-year ban that prevented him from defending his title in Beijing.
At 30, Gatlin wasn't sure he would be in this position again.
Sure, he envisioned a comeback, but never anything quite like this. He blazed out of the blocks on Sunday, picked up steam midway through the race and held off Gay – along with Ryan Bailey – to take third in a personal-best time of 9.79 seconds. He needed that, too, because Gay finished 0.01 seconds behind.It just feels good to be back," Gatlin said. "I'm here – another eight years later. My road and my journey coming back – I've been through a lot.
"There were people out there, on Twitter, Facebook and on my email, who did envision there was another medal for me. I'm glad I believed in them, because they believed in me so much."
As for which medal means more, well, that's hard to say.
"Gold is gold. Bronze is bronze," Gatlin said. "But the story that comes behind this bronze ... speechless. It means so much to me. I'm glad to be here. I have a lot left in the tank."
For Gay even to line up in London was something of a medical marvel. He had surgery on his hip last summer and was running on grass up until 4 1/2 months ago, because his hip was still too sore to take the pounding of track workouts. He hardly raced at all leading up to the U.S. trials, where he finished runner-up to Gatlin to earn an Olympic spot.
With a slight limp, he made the field for the Olympic final and almost earned a medal.
Almost made it even more painful.
"That's all I had, man," said Gay, who didn't make it to the 100 final in 2008. "I gave it my all. I feel like I ran with the field – came up short."
Gay may be the American record holder in the 100 and the 2007 world champion, but he's running out of time to capture that elusive Olympic medal. He's going to be 30 on Thursday and things won't be getting any easier down the road.
Nothing is guaranteed in four years – for Gay or Gatlin.
That's why this Olympics was so important for both. That's why the emotions bubbled to the surface.
"I went out there to challenge a mountain, to challenge the odds," Gatlin said. "I had to be fearless. I went out there to run my heart out, to do what I had to do."