INTERVIEW: Gatlin has Bolt in his sights

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  • After two lengthy drug bans some don’t think Gatlin should be back on the track.

    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.

    “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.”