After his beating in Beijing, Gatlin ready to rise again
As he prepares for his final two races of the season at the Brussels Diamond League tonight, Justin Gatlin, as ever, is keen not to look in the rear-view mirror.
His mind has already moved on from the memory of that men’s 100m final in Beijing, in which Gatlin gifted the gold medal to Usain Bolt over the final 20 metres through a combination of overstriding, forward leaning and wildly flailing arms.
“This is very important for me,” says Gatlin of tonight’s season finale in Brussels, where he will run over both 100m and 200m, with a little over an hour between each race. “It’ll be a bigger challenge this year after coming off a double at the World championships, but I’m ready to run.”
In the 100m, Gatlin’s chief threat will come from Asafa Powell, while later in the night he will line up for the 200m alongside world 400m champion Wayde Van Niekerk and Gatlin’s training partner Isiah Young. Winning both will prove a difficult task, especially given the stress and emotional rollercoaster he endured recently, but Gatlin feels he’s ready.
“I was really tired, fatigued, and emotionally up and down,” he says of the Beijing aftermath, “but I came out good. I’m happy with my performances and I stayed healthy. I wanted to come away on top of the podium but as a runner, a competitor, you can’t dwell on races behind you. If I come into this worrying about what happened in Beijing, it’s going to take away.
Inevitably, though, Gatlin was drawn on what he did wrong in that race in Beijing and how – if such a feat is even possible – he can defeat Bolt at the Olympic Games next year. When he watched the race video of the 100m final last week, Gatlin noted, like most others, that his desperation to get to the line first was what cost him victory.
“It was bad,” he says. “I didn’t do what I usually do which is sit on my hips. I leaned too far forward and it caught me off balance, but I have to make sure I learn from those hard lessons and I did.”
‘He’s a different animal’
His agent, Renaldo Nehemiah, is in no doubt that the error cost him the gold medal. “If they ran that race nine more times, Justin would have won that race all nine times, because he wouldn’t make that mistake again,” he said.
Despite the loss, it’s been quite the year for the 33-year-old, who will end the year as the fastest man in the world over 100m and also win the Diamond Trophy regardless of tonight’s result. Much of his improvement this year, according to Nehemiah, is down to the technical changes he has made under coach Dennis Mitchell. “He’s lost weight, and technically he’s a different animal,” says Nehemiah.
“He’s destroying people right out of the blocks and now he’s maintaining. Dennis has done a magnificent job making him stride shorter in the last 20 or 30 metres. That’s what happened in Beijing – it was a panic, Justin was trying to get to the line sooner and he started overstriding; had he stayed doing what he normally does Usain couldn’t get to him.”
Looking ahead to next year, Gatlin is relishing the chance to make amends for the Beijing defeat at the Olympic Games, though the specifics of his path to Rio will not be laid out until early next year.
“Once I sit down with my coach we’ll plan what we’re going to run,” he says. “He’s the one who decides everything. I’m just looking forward to resting, getting home and sitting on the couch and then once he tells me it’s time to start work, I will. It’s all about growth, getting better and better. In 2014 I was in consistent 9.8 shape, this year I was in consistent 9.7 shape, so it’s all about being there on the day next year.”
Despite his age, Gatlin – will be 34 when he lines up in Rio – he refuses to forecast a possible retirement date and given his times this season – highlighted by a personal best of 9.74 – why would he?
“If I set a goal I try to achieve it,” he says. “So if I set a goal for retirement I’ll start subconsciously working towards it. These young guys growing up in America, there’s some top talent trying to knock me off, so I’m going to try stay on top.”
If he can remain at the top of the pile of Bolt’s challengers, Gatlin will get his chance next summer to make amends for Beijing. Nehemiah feels that despite Bolt’s unquestioned ability, Gatlin is capable of beating him.
“Justin is not afraid of him,” says Nehemiah. “He doesn’t have to run the world record. He just has to be there when the bar gets raised.”
Despite the criticism his client faced in many sections of the media on the lead-up to Beijing, Nehemiah feels Gatlin’s presence actually did a service to the sport.
“He’s the first guy since 2008 who’s threatened [Bolt], and the reason it’s exciting is someone is challenging him. If Gatlin’s not in the race, it’s a boring race, but everyone was glued to their seats for that race.”
With Bolt ending his season early, fans are unlikely to see a rematch until the Olympic final next summer, but Nehemiah believes it would be good for the sport if they clashed more often. “Justin wants to compete with him,” he says.
“We were hoping to race him here, but all sponsors care about is medals, so [Bolt] doesn’t have to run here. Justin loves the competition. Wouldn’t you want to see that race four or five times a year? Wouldn’t that be incredible for the sport?