It is the Olympic champion and world record holder’s first defeat over 100 metres since Yohan Blake’s victory in last year’s Jamaican trials, and, before that, Tyson Gay’s win in Stockholm in 2010.
It is Gatlin, who has served a drugs ban and won bronze behind Bolt in London, who has been stoking the rivalry between the pair, although until last night that was easily dismissed as the “trash talk” of a 31-year-old who might gain from lucrative head-to-heads. Perhaps not any more.
Bolt started well – he even suggested afterwards that this “kind of threw me a little, and on my fifth step I stumbled a bit” – but it was in the second half of the race that he was a shadow of his usual self. Normally his fully extended six-foot-five frame is a sight to behold, but here it was as though he was lacking his top gear – or his turbo, as he put it. It wasn’t a fast race, Gatlin winning in 9.94 seconds, with Bolt, who initially seemed to think he had won, recording 9.95.
“I got a good start but then went downhill from there,” said Bolt. “I thought I would get back in the race in the last 50 maybe. But the turbo wasn’t there, as it usually is. So I’ll just have to figure out what went wrong and what I need to do to get that last 50 back. You learn more from losing,” he added. “You can’t win every race in your career, I’ve learned that.” Bolt wasn’t exactly humbled but he was certainly less ebullient than usual, despite saying on the eve of this Golden Gala, held in the memory of the great Italian sprinter Pietro Mennea, who died in March, that he wanted to “dominate for the next four years”.
“I went in confident like I always do,” said Bolt, “but I wasn’t sure where I was. Now I can watch the tape back and figure out what went wrong.”
His only mild dig at Gatlin was his comment that his rival has had something of a head start this year, while also pointing out that it is still early in the season, and that this year, for him, is all about the world championships in Moscow in August. “You always want to run a few good races before [facing] a big opponent, especially if he’s been running and getting better,” said Bolt. “The one-offs are never for me, it’s all about the world championships. I’ve got two months to get it right.”
The Diamond League doesn’t always sparkle but it did in Rome as the two sprinting rivals went head-to-head for the first time since London.
Before last night Gatlin had gone under ten seconds three times this season, with a best of 9.88 last weekend, while Bolt had failed to break the ten-second barrier. It should be added that, after recovering from a hamstring injury, he had only raced once, in the Cayman Islands, where he won in 10.09.
Gatlin echoed Bolt in stressing that it is early in the season, and that his talk of a “dogfight” in Moscow is just that – talk. He has no bad feeling towards Bolt, he said, only respect. “It’s not about liking your rivals, it’s about respecting them,” said Gatlin as he came off the track. “I definitely respect him.” Later, he seemed determined to be gracious towards his rival. “I don’t keep count of how many people have beaten Bolt,” said Gatlin. “All I can say is it that it’s hard to race against him, and it’s an honour to race him. He’s brought so much to the sport, he’s inspired me to be a better runner and a better entertainer.”
Bolt now goes to Oslo to run the 200 metres next Thursday before returning to Jamaica for his national championships and a 100m confrontation with Blake – if he recovers from his own injury problems – that assumes extra significance after Bolt’s performance here. British athletes in action in Rome included Dai Green in the 400 metres hurdles, in his first outing since his disappointing Olympics. The world champion finished fifth behind the winner Johnny Dutch and the London 2012 bronze medallist, Javier Culson, but he was happy with that after suffering a double hernia. “It gives you a really good indication of where you are at when you race the big guys and that was about where I thought I was,” said Greene.
Hannah England was fourth in a strong women’s 1500m, and Eilish McColgan was tenth in the women’s 3,000m steeplechase.