There has been a buzz in the track and field community since last Friday, May 15, when American Justin Gatlin blazed to a 9.74-second season opener at the Diamond League meeting in Doha. The time is a personal best for Gatlin, faster than the 9.77s he ran back on May 12, 2006, the year he was banned for eight years, effectively for life, after he tested positive for elevated levels of testosterone. It was the second time he had failed a drug test and under the existing WADA Code he should have been gone for good.
However, after reportedly cooperating with authorities in December 2007 his ban was reduced to four years which means that he could return to international competition in 2010. Since his return Gatlin has run faster every season. Two years after he returned he won bronze at the London 2012 Olympics in 9.79 seconds. He would get faster still as in 2014 Gatlin ran unbeaten for 18 finals lowering his personal best to 9.77s, the time he had equaled Asafa Powell’s world record with in 2006.
Fast forward to May 15, 2015 the start of his fifth season since he was allowed back into the sport and Gatlin has gone faster again, this time in his season opener, probably the fastest ever opener by a sprinter. The 9.74 is, I believe, the seventh fastest time ever run behind Usain Bolt’s 9.58, 9.63, 9.69 and 9.72. Tyson Gay’s 9.69 and 9.71, and Yohan Blake’s 9.69. Asafa Powell’s 9.72 is also faster.
Gatlin’s 9.74 also tied Asafa Powell’s former world record that was set back in 2007.
With the world championships coming this summer, Gatlin’s run has heightened the expectation of his clash with Bolt at the IAAF World Championships in Beijing in August where the latter is hoping to defend his world titles from 2013 and extend his dominance in the sprints.
Gatlin drew first blood this season as he proved to be the difference maker when the USA beat Jamaica in the sprint relay at the World Relay Championships in the Bahamas in early May. It was the first time since 2007 that Jamaica was losing to the Americans in the event. Bolt’s world-record anchor-leg run of 8.65s cannot be overlooked however, as it suggests that the world champion is on his way back to his other-worldly self.
However, Gatlin’s fast time at age 33, an age at which most sprinters are nearing retirement, has many believing that the polarizing American is back on the performance-enhancing drugs that made him so fast back in 2006. They even believe he was taking drugs when he won the Olympic 100-metre title in 2004 and the world title in Helsinki, Finland a year later. Each of those races was won in 9.85s.
For many Jamaicans Gatlin now also presents a legitimate threat to this country’s seven-year dominance of the sprints. To be fair, that dominance has been on the wane. Blake, history’s second fastest man, has been out with injury for almost two seasons while Powell has been known for being profligate when it comes to major championships. Bolt, also through injury and inactivity, has kind of lost his aura of invincibility. The last time Bolt wowed the world with a really fast time in the 100 metres was in London 2012 when in chilly conditions he ran 9.63s to defended the Olympic title he first won in 2008.
Since 2012, Bolt’s best times have been 9.77 in August 2013 and 9.98s in 2014. In the mind of many Jamaicans the gap between the ‘hated’ American and their beloved Bolt has shrunk considerably and has them thinking that Bolt could possibly be dethroned as world champion by the drug-tainted American in Beijing in August. It also hasn’t helped that Gatlin beat Bolt in Rome in June 2013 to join the handful of sprinters who have managed to do so since the Jamaican speedster first claimed the title as fastest man in history seven years ago.
People have asked me if I believe Gatlin is running clean and how can he possibly run this fast when he is ostensibly an ‘old-man’ at 33. Now I don’t know if Gatlin is taking anything. Information has surfaced recently that drug cheats have been evading detection by carefully titrating their dosing regimen. I don’t know if Gatlin is on one of those programmes. I also don’t know if he is on some new undetectable designer drug that allows him to train harder for longer and recover more quickly.
On the outside however, it seems as if the American is doing all the right things to be able to go faster.
When you look at his race in Doha, you would have seen a near perfect execution of his sprinter’s technique. Gatlin was very linear and he was solid in all the different phases of his race. Can he do that throughout the course of what will be a long season; only time will tell but to the naked eye, he ran a clean race. He has also shed about 15 pounds over the past two seasons while not sacrificing power. This is like putting a large powerful engine inside a lightweight vehicle or like having a powerful engine on a motorbike.
One thing that people tend to overlook is that unlike his contemporaries, Gatlin’s body has at least four fewer years of wear and tear caused by constant competition and international travel. So by comparison to other athletes his age, his body is fresh, especially when one considers that in his first two years back in competition, he wasn’t allowed to compete in Diamond League races. This meant that he wasn’t required to travel all over Europe from the USA for competition. Ostensibly, he had six years of relative rest, which means that those are 27-year-old sprinter’s legs he’s been running on and those ‘young’ legs have been propelling him to faster times.
Whatever the reason for Gatlin’s fast times, what is certain is that he being a legitimate threat to Bolt will make him into an even more polarizing figure as anti-doping advocates don’t want to see him back at the top of world sprinting. There are those however, who believe the sprinter has paid his penance and should be given the benefit of the doubt. It is said that he is constantly being tested by the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) and so far he has been found to be clean.
With new anti-doping innovations on the horizon, like hair-follicle testing that can determine how long a person has been using PEDS, only time will tell whether the American is truly reformed or has simply found a better way to cheat.