The CHill Zone of T&F: Conway's View From the Finish Line

W.S.J.D.? (What Should Justin Do?)

Jan 26th, 2010
5:04 pm PST
AT&T USA Outdoor Track and Field Championships - Day Two

As the clock counts down to the impending return to the track of Justin Gatlin, the talk begins regarding his place among the world’s sprinting elite.

After all, this is no ordinary “comeback”. This is a man that was among the best high school sprinters/hurdlers in the country (10.36/13.66) when he graduated in 2000 (= #4 in both events). He then went to the University of Tennessee where he won back to back NCAA sprint doubles as a frosh/soph and set a National Collegiate Record for 200 meters (19.86). He then went pro and following injury in his first pro season came back to win the Olympic 100 meter title in Athens (9.85) and then a sprint double in Helsinki (9.88/20.00) in very inclement weather. The follow up was an equaling of the then WR of 9.77 for 100 meters early the next season.

Gatlin was becoming the face of the sport and had the world at his feet. Then came the Kansas Relays. The positive test for testosterone. The ban. The last time we saw Gatlin on the track he was winning a National 100 meter title over then rising Tyson Gay in Eugene circa 2006. Now, four years later, he will return to competition this July.

But four years is an eternity in athletics, and during his exile from the sport sprinting changed. Those who were in his wake during his reign of success (Tyson Gay, Asafa Powell, and Usain Bolt) have all improved DRAMATICALLY. Gay has since won his own sprint double at the World Championships and dropped his bests to 9.69/19.58 and is the current AR Holder in the 100 meters. Usain Bolt won double gold in both Beijing and Berlin and is double WR holder at 9.58/19.19. And former WR holder and rival Asafa Powell has dropped his best in the 100 to 9.72.

Even coming back as fast as before Gatlin would be looking at the backs of all three – not a position that he is accustomed to. And while he has stated that he’s “beaten them all before” and believes he can do so once again, all are working on getting “faster” and are ready to concede nothing to him.

So, W.S.J.D.? He says he’s working on new technique. Trying to prepare himself to compete toe to toe with the sports new speed crew. His belief is that at 28 he is still young enough to come back from four years of non competition to run not only 9.77 as before, but to get into the 9.5/9.6 range necessary to compete with the world’s current cream of the crop.

Personally, I think that this is a PERFECT time for Gatlin to return to the track. So much so, that I believe he can once again become Olympic and World Champion – if he were to move up to the 400! Yes, the 400.

Many people forget that the current WR holder in the 400 (Michael Johnson) started out as a sprinter at Baylor. And that it was through both repeated injury and Johnson’s penchant for turning in superlative relay legs in the 4×4 that the move was made away from the 100/200 double up to the 200/400 double. The rest, as they say, is history.

Gatlin too showed a penchant for fast 4×4 splits when he was at Tennessee. Often turning in low 44 second relay legs. While he hasn’t been injured since 2003, time away from the sprints can have the same sort of effect as far as taking away from one’s quickness. So potentially we’re looking at Gatlin coming back and NOT being a 9.77 sprinter. Perhaps more of a high 9.8x to low 9.9x sprinter.

If so, that would put him far off the pace of the lead group of Bolt/Gay/Powell and potentially battling with the likes of Doc Patton, Richard Thompson, Daniel Bailey and Ivory Williams. But taking that same “drop” in speed to the 400 would give him the fastest speed EVER brought to the event! An event that I think is due for an explosion of its own.

Gatlin would bring the perfect set of credentials/stats to the event. Nice size at 6′ 1″, 175 lbs. Great speed. He’s already shown that he can handle the event. But most importantly he has the competitive make up of a champion. A competitive drive that could put him over the top in an event that seems to be begging for the “Next Great Thing”.

The event’s two top established stars both seem somewhat stagnant. Jeremy Wariner (’04, ’05, ’07 champion) has had two very down seasons following his switching of coaches – and eventual switch back – in ’08 & ’09. Current #1 Lashawn Merritt (’08 & ’09 champion) is winning easily with regularity without really pushing the envelope. Both are running times that are well off the current WR. A record that, looking at the rate of improvement of the other sprints, might be slightly soft in comparison.

A move to the 400 could do several things for Gatlin. For starters it would take away any comparisons to “what he did before the ban”. Taking away that comparison would make the ‘ban” less of an issue, as he would be able to simply be judged on his progression over the 400.

More importantly for Gatlin, a move to the event would give him a better opportunity to do what he has done best for most of his career – excel against his competition! As currently only Merritt seems capable of running regularly under 44.50 – a mark that I believe is easily within Gatlin’s reach.

Finally, if he is successful in the transition to the degree that I believe he is capable of, Gatlin could both return to the top of the podium, and set new standards in the event – becoming a WR setter once again! With his speed, stride, and speed endurance, he could become the first sub 43sec quarter miler. An achievement that could once again put him in the headlines – for all the right reasons.

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