Wed | Dec 7, 2016

The Gatlin dilemma

Published:Thursday | September 18, 2014 | 12:00 AM
Hubert Lawrence
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Unless something dramatic happens, Justin Gatlin could well be the Athlete of the Year.

His fine season - 17 races without a loss and world-leading times in the 100 and 200 - compares well with everything else the world has to offer. The only trouble is that the 32-year-old's past is his worst enemy.

In the street, in verandah talk, and in public discourse, analysis of Gatlin's brilliant 2014 campaign harkens back to the positive drug tests in his past.

There's no thought that, in four years away from the sport, he rested his body and recharged his desire to restore his reputation by performance. This discourse seems to presume him guilty until proven innocent.

That's the wrong way around for anyone, and especially for an athlete who is probably under more scrutiny than the rest of the world's best.

He was wonderful at 200 metres, an event in which he was once World champion. Times of 19.68 and 19.71 seconds, praiseworthy for everyone else, just made things worse.

Interestingly, he hasn't improved much in the 100 since 2012. In London at the Olympics, he sped to a personal best of 9.79 seconds to secure the bronze behind Usain Bolt and Yohan Blake.

This year, his best time in the 100 is 9.77. The difference is just 0.02 seconds.

One contention is that he is too old to be fast. Yet, Linford Christie won the Olympic 100m at 32. A year later, he set a personal best to win the World Championships.

To be fair, there's no army of old-but-fast sprinters. Those who have come down the pike include Merlene Ottey, Frankie Fredericks and Evelyn Ashford, who kept going fast well into their 30s.

FEW CANDIDATES

Unless there are very quick times in late-season marathons, the candidates for Athlete of the Year are few.

High jumpers Bohdan Bondarenko and Mutaz Barshim battled each other to heights of 2.42 and 2.43 metres, respectively, and routinely threatened Javier Sotomayor's world record of 2.45. Kirani James didn't race much, but beat LaShawn Merritt more often than he lost and got down to 43.74 seconds for 400 metres.

Nijel Amos ran brilliantly in the 800m. Silas Kiplagat was brilliant in the 1500m, but took his hits against Asbel Kiprop and Ayanleh Souleiman, who defeated him in Doha and Eugene, respectively.

Finally, Renaud Lavillenie broke Sergey Bubka's world record with an indoor pole vault clearance of 6.16 metres. The Frenchman dominated outdoors, but did have his flame-outs, too.

When you run the numbers, Gatlin looks good. Seventeen wins, six sub-9.9 clockings and a move in the 200m to number eight all-time press a compelling case.

One wonders if the awards people will be able to look at his numbers without pondering his past. If they do, Gatlin could end up as Athlete of the Year.

Hubert Lawrence has scrutinised athletics since 1980.