Beijing is going to bear witness to one of the greatest sprinting showdowns in history when Usain Bolt and Justin Gatlin take to the track – first in the 100, then hopefully again in the 200. It’s the thing that makes this sport great when it happens – a great head to head matchup of two of the best of all time. The question, who will emerge victorious. I’m going to give my two cents on who I think that might be.
Before I do that however, let me debunk what has become a mainstream media attempt to devalue both Justin Gatlin and by default the matchup itself. The word that keeps being put out there on Gatlin is that he is a "two time doper" – a claim that just isn’t true. You see, Ben Johnson was a two time doper. Ben was busted in Seoul, and had to admit, along with his coach, that he was doped to the gills as he prepared to race Carl Lewis. Ben was looking for that edge he felt that he needed to compete at the elite level – looking to elevate himself from "good" to "great". He was banned for his indiscretion, returned to the sport, and was immediately caught with drugs in his system – earning him a lifetime ban from the sport.
Tim Montgomery was another sprinter looking to defeat a rival, as his passion to defeat and take the WR from Maurice Greene led him to participate in "Project World Record" – and he too was found to be a serial doper and was banned from the sport.
Justin Gatlin was neither of these – actually he was more like several other recent bannees as I will demonstrate shortly. You see Gatlin’s "first offense" occurred in college for an A.D.D. medication that he had been taking since childhood. Upon further review, the IAAF and WADA determined that the medication gave him NO advantage – and by the way he didn’t take the medication near competitions – and his "ban" was reduced to time served. Unfortunately for Gatlin, this instance was used as "strike two" when later in his career Gatlin had a positive test at the Kansas Relays of 2006.
Now several notes here, Gatlin won NCAA, Olympic and World titles in the 100/200 after the A.D.D. medication issue. As there was no reduction/change in his competitive times. Also note that the Kansas Relays was the only time before or after the meet that Gatlin tested positive – ever. The story that he has given for that positive test is that he was massaged with a tainted cream that altered his system. Without reviewing the entire case here he was banned – his agreement to assist the authorities resulting in a four year ban instead of life. Gatlin served the four years, returned and has worked his way back to this point in history.
His second ban, claiming that it was tainted substance, was very similar to bans served by several others including Shelley Ann Fraser Pryce, Tyson Gay, Yohan Blake, Asafa Powell, and several others – most of whom failed multiple tests. So if we’re going to start to classify anyone that has ever served a ban – and at that for "tainted" substances – then let’s prepare to claim a quarter of the athletes attending the World Championships in Beijing "dopers" in the name of fair and open reporting instead of vilifying some and pretending like the bans of others didn’t exist. Hell, Gay, Powell, and Kelly Ann Baptiste all just returned from bans this year. And Baptiste has already set a new national record – where is the outrage.
Gatlin had a single bad test nearly a decade ago, has fulfilled EVERYTHING the sport has asked him to do; and unlike serial doper Ben Johnson has been nowhere near a positive test. It’s time to get to what may be the greatest sprint matchup in history! Bolt v Gatlin.
It’s fitting that these two men are among the most technically solid sprinters in history, and perhaps the most visible and dominate of the New Millennium. So rather than start off with their strengths, I’m going to begin with their weaknesses – because it is here where one or the other will have to capitalize in order to win in Beijing. Bolt’s weakness is his start – it’s inconsistent. When he’s off he can be beaten as has happened against Tyson Gay, Asafa Powell, Yohan Blake and Justin Gatlin. Of course these are the next four fastest men in history behind WR holder Bolt, so mere mortals need not apply. Those capable of running in the lower regions of 9.7 however, may be able to hold off a late charging Bolt if he misses that start and puts himself in a hole against the most elite of the elite.
As for Gatlin, his weakness is his tendency to over stride when in full flight. Again looking at the top five of all time, Bolt, Blake, Gay, and Powell have on occasion been able to outrun him to the line if they are with him mid-way to three quarters into the race as their better turnover can put them ahead as he has difficulty "changing gears" at that point. When he nails the start and buries others early however, Gatlin in pretty invincible. As he was in Athens and Helsinki when he won gold medals on the big stage – and as he’s been in every race he’s run the past two seasons. Similarly when Bolt nails the start, he’s in WR territory as he was in Berlin and London – Beijing in ’08 there was no "super sprinter" available to challenge him.
So, where does that leave us in Beijing in 2015?
The start to 30 meters. Gatlin will win this portion of the race. A perfect start will see Bolt nearly even, but not quite – his stride a bit too long to pull him even at this juncture. The real key here is how relaxed each athlete is. If either one tightens here he will give the race away. Of course if either tightens at ANY point in this race he hands it to his opponent.
Thirty meters to 60 meters. Regardless of how the race "looks" at this point, it is the part of the race where the winner will be decided. Gatlin will have to put distance between he and Bolt during this stretch. Bolt will have to make sure that he is even with Gatlin here. Gatlin needs to be free of Bolt’s long stride which will start unwinding at this point. If Gatlin doesn’t gain a fraction here, he risks being "broken" in the final 40 when Bolt’s long stride could force him to break his own stride Conversely, Bolt needs to be in position to do just that as they hit the 60 mark. If he isn’t he could be pressing in the final 40 in his attempt to get ahead of Gatlin. The rest of the field should be buried and fighting for the final medal.
Sixty meters to the tape. Bolt will be in full flight at this point. Here one can only hope to hold him off – you can’t run with him. If Gatlin has executed his typical race pattern he could be in that position – attempting to hold off the charging Bolt. His 200 meter strength is enough to do just that if Bolt never gets beside him which could throw is own stride pattern off. If Bolt is beside him at any point in this race Gatlin must relax – or as the Grover Washington Jr song indicated "Let It Flow". If Gatlin flows he has a chance, if Bolt forces a hitch in his giddyup Bolt takes him to school!
So, who wins? Neither man is going to just give the race away. They have won the last three Olympic titles between them. They run best when the lights are on. Bolt won both titles he contested in ’08/’12. Gatlin won the ’04 title and took bronze in ’12 in spite of being back for little more than a year following his four year ban. These men are mentally tough!
Gatlin has the advantage in the opening phase of the race, Bolt in the closing stages – a classic matchup. Gatlin has clearly been the better racer for the past two seasons. Bolt meanwhile just began to look close to form in Britain last month. Typically Gatlin would be an easy call – consistent and dominant. But Bolt has not come to a major and performed poorly since 2007 and I don’t expect it to happen this year. So we have two men that ALWAYS do their best in major championships. So here come a string of predictions leading up to the ultimate prediction.
Gatlin runs a PR sub 9.70. He’s run a PR in every major final he’s contested. Yes I know that Helsinki was not a PR but given the weather the race was superior to his PR. Point being is that I would expect him to be at an all-time best.
Best ever time for second place will be set in the race. In other words this will be the first 100 meters in history with two men under 9.70!
Both men will execute "their" phases of the race flawlessly – Gatlin the first 30, Bolt the final 40. This is going to be the most beautiful 100 meters in history – though not a WR. And therein lies the core of this result.
While I believe Gatlin will be in his best ever form, I do not see Bolt in that mode. Which means we will not see a repeat of the race he ran in Berlin. In that race, Bolt led virtually from start to finish and the result was 9.58. I see his start as being better than Beijing ’08, but not as good as Berlin ’09. And there is a major difference in 2015 from 2009 – the false start rule. Bolt was able to "hedge" his bet on the start in ’09 – he was called for a false start in the rounds. You can’t do that now. So at best we’ll see a version of the 2012 start. That start put him in position against Gatlin – it won’t in 2015. As a result, Gatlin (better than ’12) will be able to get the space necessary to hold off Bolt. So it will be the 2011 rule change that saw Bolt false start out of Daegu, that will earn Gatlin the title in 2015 – 9.64 to 9.68.
One further prediction, as with the World Championships of 1987, this race will be the preliminary for Rio where we will see a new WR as both men will be WR ready in 2016.