Justin Gatlin ruled the track last season in a very Usain Bolt-like fashion: 18 wins in 18 races.
Impressive and all, but comes with a tiny caveat: Bolt never lined up in the lane next to Gatlin last summer. The Jamaican world-record holder took time off to heal nagging injuries since there were no major meets.
Now bring on the planet’s fastest sprinter, though their first 100-meter showdown may not take place until August at the world championships in Beijing.
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The wait is fine with Gatlin – builds intrigue. It also gives the 33-year-old American more time to get up to speed in the 200 as well, because he’s going after both of Bolt’s world titles.
In new shoes, too, after returning to Nike, the company that dropped him after his doping offense in 2006 led to a four-year ban.
”Usain’s obviously the gold standard,” said Gatlin, who kicks off the defense of his 100-meter Diamond League crown in Doha, Qatar, on Friday. ”I can’t sit here and belittle him and say, `Hey man, he’s not the guy.’ Because he is the guy. He’s broken a lot of records people thought were unbreakable.”
Gatlin’s certainly not intimidated by Bolt, who’s captured gold in the 100 and 200 at the last two Olympics. After all, it was Gatlin who handed Bolt a rare loss at a meet in Rome two years ago, when he out-leaned Bolt at the finish.
”I’m aware of the talent that Bolt brings to the track and I’ll be more cautious than I have fear,” said Gatlin, who took gold at the 2004 Athens Games and bronze eight years later in London. ”I know what it takes, focus-wise, to be able to say, `I know what I need to do to be on top.”’
Gatlin won’t run the 100 at the U.S. championships next month in Eugene, Oregon. No reason to – being the reigning 100-meter champion of the Diamond League, he has an automatic bye into the event at worlds. That allows him to dabble in the 200, which he won at the 2005 world championships.
”I’d like to go out there and experience what it’s like to double again,” said Gatlin, a former University of Tennessee standout who trains in Florida. ”I haven’t doubled in a long time.
”But that’s going to be a lot of running.”
Fast running, too.
After all, Gatlin thinks the world record in the 100 could fall in Beijing, especially with Bolt returning to form. It’s a lightning-quick track Bolt knows intimately well after breaking the record inside the Bird’s Nest during the 2008 Beijing Olympics. In Germany a year later, Bolt toppled the world mark again, lowering the record to where it currently stands at 9.58 seconds.
”You have to have the mindset to say, `I want to run 9.5 or 9.6′ and go achieve it. You can’t say, `I want to get the gold just by beating the guy next to me,”’ explained Gatlin, whose fastest time is 9.77, which he set last September.
To get even leaner in the offseason, Gatlin cut down on carbs, including pasta and bread. This after dropping cheeseburgers and chocolate from his diet the year before.
Simply the price to catch up to Bolt. And while Gatlin would welcome facing Bolt before world championships, he doesn’t envision a scenario where that will happen.
”When it comes to being the man, and if you feel like you’re not 100 percent ready, you’re not going to race anybody who’s going to be a threat,” said Gatlin, who was on the U.S. 400 relay team that beat Bolt and his Jamaican buddies at the World Relays in the Bahamas on May 2. ”You’re going to race them on your terms. That’s a wise business decision.”
Recently, Bolt called out Gatlin’s American teammate Tyson Gay by saying Gay’s reduced ban for cooperating with investigators was ”the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard,” in an interview with Runner’s World magazine published in The Times of London newspaper.
Gay received a backdated one-year suspension last year after testing positive for a steroid at nationals in 2013. He was given the reduced penalty because he provided evidence to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency that led to an eight-year ban for his former coach, Jon Drummond.
Although Gatlin had his own run-in with doping, Bolt didn’t admonish him. Gatlin served his time after testing positive for excessive testosterone in 2006.
”I think, in a weird way, Bolt respects that I’ve been gone for four years and was able to work hard. I’m just trying to run,” Gatlin said. ”I’m coming here to run to the best of my abilities.
”For that, he hasn’t spoken out against me. I respect him for that.”