HERE’S a crazy thought. What if Justin Gatlin is clean? Nobody is saying he is not clean – not explicitly.
But the implications of what some are saying seem clear enough, as is the characterisation of his anticipated 100m meeting with Usain Bolt at the World Championships in Beijing next Sunday as a ‘good versus evil’ showdown.
Sebastian Coe said this week that a Gatlin win would leave him feeling “queasy”. The former British sprinter Darren Campbell came over all counter-intuitive when he said that he wants a Gatlin win. As he explained it: “The fairy tale is that Usain Bolt beats Justin Gatlin, but in a crazy kind of way I want to see Justin Gatlin beat Usain Bolt because the sport will have to deal with it. The spotlight will be truly on the sport and the sport will have to make a decision.”
The issue is that Gatlin has served two doping suspensions. But that isn’t really the issue – it can’t be. He returned to competition after a four-year ban in August 2010. Five years ago! Where was the outrage before Daegu 2011, London 2012, or Moscow 2013?
So the issue is not that Gatlin is running, it’s that he is running faster than ever. And he is 33. Going on current form, he should beat Bolt in Beijing – though going on form, Yohan Blake should have been beaten Bolt at the London Olympics.
Gatlin is a problem. More accurately, a Gatlin win is a problem. It’s OK to return from a doping ban, it seems, as long as you are not better than before. Coming back better is unacceptable. Plus, it doesn’t seem to make sense for a sprinter to improve in his thirties. Isn’t sprinting a young man’s game? Then there is the research that suggests that steroids – Gatlin’s first offence was for ‘minor’ doping, amphetamines, but his second was for serious doping, testosterone – confer long-term benefits.
This is a valid concern, but let’s assume that Gatlin is clean, and not just because he insists that he is, but because any athlete who is eligible to compete – as Gatlin is, according to the rules – is entitled to the presumption of innocence. As a two-time drugs offender, you would imagine, and hope, that he is subject to stringent testing. And that the testing is effective.
While it will never be perfect, since Gatlin’s second failure in 2006, testing is much improved, especially when it comes to detecting the steroids that can make such a difference for a sprinter. Gatlin comes under the jurisdiction of the US Anti-Doping Agency, which has proved to be pretty good at catching cheats through testing but also intelligence. (They are also willing to use the sophisticated but expensive method of CIR testing for testosterone, which recently snared the cyclist Tom Danielson.)
So what, assuming he is not cheating, might explain Gatlin’s remarkable form, which has seen him run a season’s fastest (and personal best) 9.74 seconds? There are some interesting theories, mostly concerning Gatlin’s improved technique. Compare and contrast the Gatlin of 2004, when he won the Olympic title in Athens, and 2015. He is less ragged, smoother – better and faster.
“He’s so consistent and he’s actually perfected the whole race,” says Jimson Lee, a physiologist and coach whose website (www.speedendurance.com) covers all that you need to know about sprinting (and much more). “Before, you could see some flaws,” Lee continues. “After 80 metres he’d break down. Biomechanically now he’s perfect.
“If you compare the 2004 and 2015 Gatlin, he’s much more fluid, efficient and, I would say, almost flawless.”
Of course, he must have been quite good in 2004. He was Olympic champion. But Lee stresses the complexity of the sprint – the five phases identified by Carl Lewis’s old coach, Tom Tellez, which can each be further broken down, analysed and improved upon. The great truism is that the perfect 100m has never been – will never be – run. After the 1996 Olympic final in Atlanta, Donovan Bailey’s coach, Dan Pfaff, told him that he’d run a “terrible race” with numerous mistakes. Yet Bailey won.
Bolt’s coach, Glen Mills, has identified flaws even when his charge has broken the world record. Stephen Francis, who coaches Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, could barely watch her race in London, it was – to his eye – so bad. “Very messy,” was Francis’s verdict. Yet Fraser-Pryce won, defending her Olympic title.
Another, more controversial view is that Gatlin might have benefited from his time off – his four-year ban. “He had four years off of hard training and injuries,” Lee says. “So he may be 33 chronologically, but he’s 29 physically. So many guys come from basketball and excel in track within two years of training because the body isn’t beat up.”
There isn’t one area that Gatlin has improved in particular, thinks Lee. It’s the whole package. “His drive phase is amazing. He’s first to 10 metres, every time. Then, good luck catching him.”
Even Bolt? “Gatlin will win,” says Lee. How can he be so confident? He’ll be up against the fastest man in history, who always seems to have something extra in the major championships. “I think right now for sure Gatlin is going to win,” Lee says again.
There has even been talk of him breaking Bolt’s world record of 9.58 seconds, set at the world championships in Berlin six years ago. Lee believes that in the form Gatlin is in, he could. “But not in Beijing,” he clarifies. “The stadium is not known for wind.” A following wind would be necessary for a world record, he explains. “But Gatlin could run 9.66 seconds,” he continues. “And if he runs 9.66 in Beijing, he’d run 9.58 seconds with a 1.99 metres-per-second tailwind [the legal limit is 2.00m/s].”
For those of a queasy disposition, such as Coe, the prospect of a Gatlin world record must be about as palatable as a plate of sick, or Nick Kyrgios. According to Lee, then, he shouldn’t worry about this outcome next Sunday. But in the expected good vs evil clash, he should be prepared for evil to prevail. “Gatlin will win,” Lee repeats. “For sure.”
• The Bolt Supremacy: Inside Jamaica’s Sprint Factory, by Richard Moore, is out now.