Even on the furthest perimeters of Qatar Sports City, the sounds of celebration reverberated as American sprinter Justin Gatlin set a new personal best and track record to start the athletics season with a bang at the Diamond League meet in Doha.
To put this into context, Gatlin clocked 9.74 to equal the sixth fastest 100m time in history.
After serving two lengthy drug bans (in 2001 and 2006), some don’t think it’s right that a man who won gold at the 2004 Olympics but was later stripped of his medal, is back on the track.
In a sport never far away from its next doping scandal and the age-old problem of how to combat it, Gatlin’s presence at the top of the sport is uncomfortable for those who feel he should simply be banned for life and his achievements ignored.
Others, however, believe his return has reignited the sport and added a new level of competitiveness to an event that Usain Bolt has dominated for nearly a decade.
Gatlin wouldn’t be human if he didn’t read between the snipes. Opinion remains divided between those who believe his recent achievements are natural (he ran six of the seven fastest 100m times in 2014) and those who suggest dark forces are at work.
But seeing the American cruise to victory in Doha was worth the admission fee alone and now sets up a fascinating year with the World Athletics Championships taking centre stage in Beijing in August.
“That was for him (Usain Bolt),” Gatlin said. “I just wanted to go out and put down a good time and make a statement.
“You know I saw Asafa Powell put on a good time in Jamaica [at the Jamaica International Invitation on May 9] and I knew I had to go out there and throw it out on to the gauntlet and prove what I can do.
“I understand what I bring to the track – some think it’s a good thing and others think it’s a bad thing, but my job is to go out and run fast and hard and that’s what I came to Doha to do.”
In the Gulf, Gatlin excelled at that job, crossing the line 0.18 seconds ahead of compatriot Michael Rodgers and Trinidad and Tobago’s Keston Bledman. As a man who will forever be under scrutiny, Gatlin has developed a thick skin. But he still possesses charisma in abundance and is an emblematic figure.
At 33, he is running times that nobody else his age has run before. It’s not unheard of for athletes in their 30s to achieve record times, as Michael Johnson and Carl Lewis proved in the 90s, although Gatlin – perhaps understandably – finds it impossible to escape suspicion, having been an outcast for five of his 14 years of racing.
Around the track in Doha, there was little sign of such suspicion. Gatlin flashed high-wattage smiles at fans and media, pumping his fists ferociously in front of TV cameras. His victory captured the imagination of the public and judging by the response, his fan base is flourishing in the region.
“A lot of people whisper my accomplishments and yell out my flaws, but I have a job to do and I’m glad to be back,” he added. “I want to come out and do it. I have to go on to China now and hopefully do the same thing.”
For the American, there was no escaping the big story of last week as Team USA were stripped of their relay silver medal won at London 2012 after Tyson Gay tested positive for doping.
Gatlin also experienced this brutal feeling of losing an Olympic medal after Athens in 2004 when he subsequently tested positive for anabolic steroids, serving a four-year doping ban as punishment.
Battling to get excited about Justin Gatlin’s 9.74 at the Doha Diamond League. If you missed it here’s the race https://t.co/wLgZBwMsSc
— Mathew Quinn (@MatTMQ) May 15, 2015
“It is (sad), because we worked very hard for it. It was our first time going to an Olympics and winning. I won a silver medal before in 2004 and to have that medal taken away from my cabinet was a sad thing, but now I just want to go out and win a gold medal next year,” said Gatlin.
“I was in the bathroom when I got the phone call, but at the end of the day, we have to go out as team USA and push forward. We showed that at the Bahamas and we want to show it again at the World Championships.”
With Beijing around the corner, seldom have we loped into a season with such a sense of excitement and anticipation. Aside from the in-form Asafa Powell and Michael Rodgers, Bolt and his compatriot Yohan Blake are yet to return to the track but it seems inevitable both men will produce their magic at next year’s Rio Olympics.
“I think the world is waiting for him to come out and compete,” Gatlin told assembled media trackside in the Qatari capital.
“(I want to make) a statement for anyone who is in a position to win the World Championships. Hopefully whoever lines up in the finals is thinking about winning a gold (medal), so that goes to him, you guys won’t say his name, and the six other guys who are lining up for the competition. I’m not trash talking. I like to speak with my feet and that’s what I do.”
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Justin Gatlin cruised to victory in the 100 metres at the first Diamond League meeting of the year in Doha, recording the sixth fastest time in history.
Gatlin got off to a tonic start and pulled clear with 20 metres to go, finishing in 9.74 – also a new personal best for the American. Michael Rodgers was 0.18 back in second and Trinidad and Tobago’s Keston Bledman (10.01) was third.
“I just wanted to make sure I put down a good time. My job was to come out and run fast and hard and that’s what I did,” said Gatlin.
“You know I was in Jamaica a few weeks ago and saw Asafa Powell run a good time, and this influenced me to push it hard tonight. That’s what I wanted to do and make a statement for the year ahead.
“I have to go on to China now at the World Championships and make sure I do the same there,” he added.
Gatlin wins! 9.74 – a new PB, world lead and meeting record for the American! Rodgers is 2nd in 9.96, TTO’s Bledman is 3rd in 10.01! #dldoha
— Doha Diamond League (@dldoha) May 15, 2015
Meanwhile, Mo Farah got the biggest cheer of the evening despite finishing second in the 3000m. He was 0.14 behind Ethiopia’s Hagos Gebrhihwet (7:38.08) in what was a strong field.
Speaking after the race, Farah was disappointed with the finish but believes it was a chance to test himself against a competitive field.
“I looked a little bit flat. I wasn’t in control as normal. Its early season and there’s plenty of things I need to work on,” he said. “It was hard. It was a strong field and I had the opportunity to test myself.”
“I honestly thought I was going pretty quick but speaking to the guys after they said it wasn’t that quick. It shows that I’m just human and I can be beaten.”
— Doha Diamond League (@dldoha) May 15, 2015
Elsewhere, America’s Bershawn Jackson extended his superb form, clocking 48.09 to triumph in the 400m Hurdles.
Javier Culson was second in 48.96, 0.03 seconds ahead of Ireland’s Thomas Barr.
In the women’s 200m, Gatlin’s compatriot Allyson Felix set a new meeting record, powering to victory in a time of 21.98.
The 29-year-old looked in convincing form as she comfortably evaded her competitors with 100m to go. In the home straight she looked relaxed, clocking a time which she didn’t expect for this stage of the year.
“I surprised myself a bit with the time tonight. I’m trying to focus on a few specific things in the race but I’m pleased where I’m at now,” said Felix.
— Doha Diamond League (@dldoha) May 15, 2015
“Since the 100m in Jamaica a few weeks ago I knew my speed was up so I need to keep working hard in preparation for Beijing in August.”
Murielle Ahoure (22.29) of Ivory Coast took second, while Anthonique Strachan (22.69) crossed the line in third.
Another American Jasmin Stowers (12.35) won the women’s 100m hurdles, with teammate Sharika Nelvis (12.54) in second.
Qatar’s Abdalleleh Haroun continued his dominance in the 400m as he ran 44.85 – his third time running 44 seconds this year.
The 18-year-old emphatically beat Abubakar Abbas (46.09) and Youssef Mohammad Taher (46.27) into second and third to extend his tremendous record this year.
“I enjoyed the race. It’s not my best time but I’m happy. I’m just trying to get comfortable on track and do my best,” said Haroun.
The popular Ayanle Souleiman was among the winners in the 800m. The Djibouti athlete ran 1min 43mins – just off his personal best.
DOHA: Qatar — Abdalleleh Haroun cruised to victory in the 400m as he clocked 44.85 to claim a dominant win at the first Diamond League meet of the year in Doha.
The Qatari emphatically beat Abubakar Abbas (46.09) and Youssef Mohammad Taher (46.27) into second and third to extend his tremendous record this year
The 18-year-old broke the Asian indoor record in February and the Qatar junior record with 44.68, the sixth best time for an Asian.
It raises the prospect of a future Olympic star in the region as he continues to run convincingly.
“I enjoyed the race. It’s not my best time but I’m happy,” said Haroun. “I’m just trying to get comfortable on track and do my best.”
— Sport360° (@Sport360) May 15, 2015
Haroun’s superb form should continue when he competes in Eugene on May 30.
“I look ahead to Eugene and hopefully I can repeat this, if not run better.”
“I’ve run 44-seconds three times this year. It’s a huge honour to be able to a run a time like this in the Diamond League.”
In sixth place, Qatar’s Mohamed El Nour (47.77) was running in the 400m for the first time and believes he has more to offer at this distance as the season progresses.
“I was previously running 800m so I’m just getting used to this distance. It’s tough but I’ll keep working hard to improve,” said El Nour.