Sat | Dec 5, 2020

Still in the game - Gatlin speaks on Bolt’s absence, racing youngsters and defying the odds

Published:Wednesday | July 24, 2019 | 12:34 AM
Gatlin
Gatlin

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP):

Sometimes after a particularly gruelling workout, sprinter Justin Gatlin will turn to his younger training partners and inquire: “Are you sore, too?”

It’s just an age check. He doesn’t feel 37 except on rare occasions. Like at big races when he sees so much youth on the starting line and not the familiar faces from years gone by.

Missing, of course, is his biggest rival, Usain Bolt, the Jamaican standout who rewrote the record book before saying goodbye to track nearly two years ago.

Arriving on the scene, a slew of 20-somethings such as Americans Christian Coleman and Noah Lyles, who present another challenge for Gatlin, the defending 100m World Champion.

“I don’t think about age. I don’t think about being old,” said Gatlin, who will compete in the 100 at the United States championships this week in Des Moines, Iowa. “I just feel like a time traveller in a way. I’m still here, still running, still putting down good times, still training really well. Just staying focused on what the goal is.”

And that goal is to show the kids he’s still young at heart. At a Diamond League race in Monaco on July 12, Gatlin won the 100m in 9.91 seconds, holding off Lyles by 0.01 seconds.

“These young athletes, they make me feel young,” said Gatlin, who doesn’t consider the Tokyo Olympics next summer his finish line as he contemplates racing through the 2021 World Championships in Eugene, Oregon. “They’re running superfast times that I ran before, so it gives me a target. It gives me a sounding board to know where I have to be and how I’m going to have to compete.”

Throughout his career, Gatlin has been a polarising figure. With his doping past – his four-year suspension ended in 2010 – Gatlin’s been booed (like the night he beat Bolt for gold at the 2017 World Championships in London) and hounded (he gestured towards a heckler bothering his mom in the stands during the medal ceremony at the 2015 Worlds in Beijing). He’s never let it bother him. Instead, he lets his performances do most of his talking.

“I’m an enigma,” Gatlin said. “I’ve had my dark times, and I’ve gone through an area where normally someone who’s been away from the sport or had a ban would never come back from. ... I defied those odds to a point where I think that it made people uncomfortable because not only did I come back, but I came back better.”

GATLIN-BOLT RIVALRY

Gatlin surprised the track world at Worlds in 2017 by beating Bolt in Bolt’s final major 100m race. Gatlin also edged Coleman, who came in second that night, with Bolt taking third.

Not having Bolt at the World Championships this September in Doha remains hard to fathom for Gatlin. They’ve had so many epic races over the years, like at Worlds in 2015, when Bolt eclipsed Gatlin at the line. But this thought keeps Gatlin working: The next Bolt is out there. It could be Lyles or Coleman. It could be André De Grasse of Canada or Matthew Boling, the teen from Texas who is headed to Georgia for college and who became a viral sensation this spring when he ran a wind-aided 9.98 in the 100 (Bolt’s world record is 9.58). It could be anyone.

“Track and field is a beautiful, beautiful novel with many, many unique chapters,” Gatlin said. “I’m excited about what’s going to come after and how it’s going to be unique and maybe bigger and better than a Usain Bolt.”

At nationals this week, Gatlin’s plan is modest. He will run a round of the 100m – he already has an automatic spot to Worlds – and see how he feels. If he feels good, he may chase after the title. If not, he won’t. Gatlin is planning to skip the 200m as he tries to get his hips and hamstrings feeling 100 per cent.