Track and field can be an unforgiving sport. One minute you are on top of the world, the next you can be fighting for respect. A WR holder can succumb to illness (Wilson Kipketer), an Olympic champion to shame (Ben Johnson). Staying on top can be a challenge, which is why my list of the Greatest of All Time is filled with those that did just that over the long haul.
Regardless the reason for slipping from the top, there is always someone waiting to take your place. Because as much as track can be unforgiving, it is always competitive.
Currently the men’s short sprints are more competitive than ever. Among the stories to keep an eye on this year, will be the battle for sprint supremacy between Usain Bolt and Tyson Gay – history’s two fastest ever over 100 meters and 1 & 3 all time in the 200 meters. Their march to the Daegu finals could be one of the season’s most interesting stories. But there will also be an interesting sub plot to their eventual showdown – the return of Justin Gatlin to the sprint wars.
A little over four years ago, it was Gatlin who was the darling of the sprints. Having won gold (100) and bronze (200) in Athens, then double gold in Helsinki. Behind him in the Helsinki 200 were Usain Bolt and Tyson Gay – as Gatlin was the reining master and Bolt and Gay upstart apprentices.
A year later in ‘06 Gay made a serious move to the 100 and during the domestic season found himself a consistent 2nd to Gatlin – up through the national championships. Then shortly after Gatlin was exiled from the sport and Gay was left holding the mantle of America’s top sprinter. A year later he completed his apprenticeship with double gold of his own at the World Championships in Osaka.
Also improving in ‘07 was Bolt, who garnered his first global medal with a silver behind Gay in Osaka’s 200 meter final. Then a year later won his own set of double gold medals in Beijing – a feat he repeated in Berlin, cementing his rise to the top.
So, ironically, when Gatlin returned from exile last year, the global and American thrones that he held prior to leaving the sport were now occupied by former apprentices Usain Bolt and Tyson Gay. And as we begin the 2011 outdoor season it is former apprentices Bolt and Gay headlining the world’s biggest rivalry and the masters of the sprints – with Gatlin now serving as apprentice and trying to work his way back to the top.
The sport Gatlin returns to as apprentice is very different from the one he left as Master. As Master, Gatlin won Olympic and World titles in times of 9.85 (Olympic) and 9.88/20.00 (World). Since then his apprentices have made those times necessary to win qualifying rounds as their PR’s have dropped to 9.58/19.19 (Bolt) and 9.69/19.58 (Gay). What Gatlin once ran to win gold both now run on an average day – and they make running sub 20.00 look like a stroll in the park. Making Gatlin’s attempt to regain Master status a rather daunting task.
Nor will he have the luxury of waiting until Daegu to take on his former apprentices, because the road to World’s will go first through the US Trials – and Tyson Gay. A roadblock that could derail any attempt to once again become global Master as Gatlin must face the man that was his consistent runner up in 2006. He doesn’t have to beat Gay to get to Worlds, but if he can’t get close here, he could have the best seat in the house to the next WR. Because making the team without being competitive with Gay will mean a possible lane in the Daegu final in which the odds of Gay and Bolt pushing each other to a WR are extremely high.
So, running in the shadow of the buildup to Bolt v Gay, will be a man who once was part of the headline matchup: Gatlin v Powell. A three time gold medalist looking to return to his medal winning ways – but facing a pair of former apprentices who have become masters of their craft.
Can he get back to Master status, or is he now strictly an apprentice? Only time, or times, will tell.