Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Gatlin Set to Return in 2010

AT&T USA Outdoor Track and Field Championships - Day Two

With the end of the year upon us it's already time to start looking forward to the next track season. And as I look ahead to 2010 one of the most intriguing stories that could develop could be the return of Justin Gatlin to the sport.

I think the story is still fresh enough in everyone's mind that it doesn't need to be repeated in total. A positive test result from the Kansas Relays in 2006 for testosterone ( a result that he gave up his right to contest, yet contested the ban), coupled with a previously excused incident while he was at Tennessee (for a medication prescribed by his physician for A.D.D. while a youth) resulted in a 4 year ban that will end officially on 7.24.10.

Now, while there is still room for debate on several of the issues surrounding the ban, the ban has been served, and Gatlin - according to the rules of the sport - has the right to return to competition in late July. We have seen many athletes receive bans and return to competition, including the likes of Ben Johnson, Grit Breuer, Dieter Baumann, and Olga Yegorova to name but a few. All with varying degrees of success.

I'm not sure, however, that anyone has had such a daunting task put before them. Consider that when Gatlin was banned, he had just become co-holder of the WR in the 100 meters (9.77) and had unseated Maurice Greene as AR holder. He was coming off back to back seasons in which he won Olympic 100 meter gold in 2004 and became double World Champion in the 100 & 200 in 2005. He was the toast of the town, a dominant force, and becoming the face of the sport.

Then he had to leave. And the sport, at least his events, underwent a dramatic transformation during his absence. Gatlin will return to a world that is dramatically different than the one he left as the world records in both sprints have dropped from 9.77 and 19.32, down to 9.58 and 19.19. His chief rival when he left, Asafa Powell, is now a clear #3 in the 100 in spite of dropping his PR down to 9.72. The American that was a consistent runner up to Gatlin in his final season, Tyson Gay, has become a double World Champion in his own right ('07) and is down to 9.69 and 19.58 - in spite of injury. And the man that was well behind the US quadruple sweep in the 200 in Helsinki in 2005, Usain Bolt, now sits at the head of the class as double Olympic and World champion AND double WR holder!

So where does this leave the man that seemed primed to rule the sprint world upon his departure in 2006? Can he return to the top of the sprint heap? Can he contend for a medal? Can he even be competitive against these new "aliens" that have taken over during his absence?

Ironically it was felt in '06 that Gatlin, or just about any sprinter, would need assistance to perform at the level he was at at that time - which caused some to be suspicious of his performances prior to his ban. Now he must get back to that level in order to become the #4 sprinter in the world! So does he have any chance of cracking the Bolt/Gay/Powell troika and helping Tyson Gay bring the US back to sprint supremacy?

If there is a good season to come back it will be 2010. It is an off year without any major championships to contend. So there will be a bit less pressure than most seasons. Lack of a major will also help to lessen the impact of Gatlin returning AFTER the US National championships have been completed as nationals will be in June and he won't be cleared to return until July. So there won't be any missed opportunities for Worlds or the Games.

Having said that, Gat will miss all of the domestic season and will have to depend on competing in Europe to get a feel for where he is at with respect to the other sprinters out there. And that could be difficult as what was once the Golden League has become the Diamond League and the 14 meet promoters have an "agreement in principle" not to invite athletes that have been convicted of a prior doping offense.

Of course while they may have this "agreement" among them, with the league spanning three continents, and therefore several legal jurisdictions, I would expect to see any "blackballing" challenged in various courts - especially those here in the US.

Given that it appears that Gatlin is still a Nike athlete - I've been told he is training in Texas with Loren Seagrave, who is a Nike coach and with other Nike athletes - I would expect that should Gatlin show any signs of competitiveness that they will find a way to get him on the track. Especially given that the # 1 and #2 spots in the sprint world have been taken over by Puma (Bolt) and Adidas (Gay) athletes - leaving Nike in need of its own "star power" in one of the sports' marquee events, the men's 100 meters. So I dare say that we will see Gatlin on the track against high level competition should he show sufficient form.

Will he be able to compete, will be the next question. And while we should see some rust in 2010, I'm going to say that it is possible to see him in the thick of things by 2011. While one may argue whether or not he was guilty of the doping offence, one thing is certain - Gatlin was one of the most technically sound sprinters on the track prior to his departure! His start had improved, his drive phase was solid, and his top end was wicked. Ironically this is the exact same competitive profile of the top two sprinters out there since his departure in Bolt and Gay - solid starts, strong drive phases, and wicked top end speed!

Gatlin was also a solid 200 man a la Bolt and Gay, and though not as tall as Bolt was also known for his long stride. He was also very strong over 400 meters having split 44.2 while a collegian at Tennessee - giving him solid speed endurance. All of which gives him a sprinting profile that is right in line with speedsters Bolt and Gay. Now there is the question of the effect of his time off from the sport. But we do know that he spent quite a bit of time training and attempting to turn his speed into a professional football contract - a la Dwain Chambers. While he was unable to show the ability to catch the ball consistently, he was able to stay in shape. If Chambers is a guide in this regard, then Gatlin's return could be successful as Chambers came back to regain form as Britain's top sprinter - though philosophical issues have gotten in the way of his performing in various venues.

Time will tell just how fast Gatlin will run. But as one of the most competitive sprinters we've seen this millennium I have no doubt that given the opportunity he will definitely spice up the sprint scene in 2010. If nothing else it will an intriguing story to watch.

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