Bolt was trailing for almost all of the race, billed as the biggest showdown in the sport in years. But with gritted teeth, the two-time Olympic champion clawed back into contention and made his giant stride count to win in 9.79 seconds – .01 of a second faster than the American veteran.
Rising to the occasion as he always does, Bolt put a shockingly bad semifinal heat behind him to recover with a good start in the final at Beijing’s impressive Bird’s Nest arena. Two lanes to his right, Gatlin was as good as perfect for most of the race, but for seven years now, there is no denying the greatest sprinter in history.
“It is all about running the race and getting it done,” Bolt said.
Going even just before the finish line, Bolt glanced left to Gatlin in Lane 7 and threw his weight forward in a dip of desperation. His yellow-coloured Jamaica jersey crossed marginally ahead of the red-clad Gatlin for his third world title in the 100m.
Bolt kept on powering along in celebration and when he returned, Gatlin gave him a warm hug. At 33, Gatlin had been unbeaten for two years as Bolt struggled with injury. But on the biggest of occasions, timing was with Bolt again.
“Got nipped at the line by great Usain,” Gatlin said afterwards.
In a dead-heat for third, Trayvon Bromell of the US and Andre De Grasse of Canada shared bronze in 9.911 seconds.
Soon, the reggae was blaring through the public address system at the Bird’s Nest and Bolt was performing his signature Lightning Bolt move.
It could have been so different had Bolt failed to recover from a stumble at the start in the semi-finals.
“I think I hit my foot too hard,” Bolt said after the earlier race. “I just stumbled. I really don’t know what happened.” The Jamaican great had as many as seven runners to catch before winning the heat. Anxious, he spent the last 10m looking to his left to make sure he would make the final.
The final was even tougher – even with one of Bolt’s best starts in years. This time, it was Gatlin who tripped in the race. “On the last five metres, I kind of stumbled a bit,” said the 2004 Olympic gold medallist in the 100m.
Gatlin was aching for another gold medal, reaching his peak form at 33 after serving a four-year doping suspension midway through his career. But he lost the tightest finish since the 2003 championships in Paris.
Michael Johnson, the 400m world record holder and BBC Sport athletics analyst, said Bolt had forced Gatlin into his stumble. “Justin Gatlin fell apart a little bit at the end of the race,” explained the American. “It was a stumble that wasn’t caused by anything other than Usain Bolt. He got all off-balance and got ready too early for his lean. It was a Bolt-forced, un-forced error and he won’t get this opportunity again.”
Gatlin had been unbeaten in 28 races, and BBC commentator Steve Cram said: “Usain Bolt will walk away from tonight so proud of himself, and that’s from someone who has so much to be proud of during his career. This may well have been his finest day.”
Last night, bookmakers William Hill installed Bolt as their 8/11 favourite to win the 100m at the Olympic Games in 2016, with Justin Gatlin offered at even money.
“Bolt has cost us a monster payout as punters went with the big man and he is odds-on to win the Olympics next year,” said a William Hill spokesman.