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Gatlin turns sprinting into art

Gene Cherry | August 23, 2004

Justin Gatlin always wanted to make his mark on the world. But as a teenager the new Olympic 100 metres champion believed fame would come through art not sprinting.

"I was going to do art instead of running track, but a lot of my friends had faith in me that I could be the best in the world," Gatlin said.

Justin GatlinThe 22-year-old American fulfilled his dream on Sunday night when he won the Olympic gold medal in a lifetime best of 9.85 seconds.

"This is why I train. This is why I shovel snow off the (Raleigh) North Carolina track (in practice)," Gatlin said moments after his victory.

Frequently considered the future of U.S. sprinting because of his collegiate success, Gatlin supplanted fellow American Maurice Greene as the Olympic champion.

"Nobody had stepped up to the plate, and I felt it was my time. It was my time to show that good guys finish first, and that's what I am, a good guy," Gatlin said.

While he considers bronze medallist Greene "a legend" to their sport, it now will be Gatlin's world to rule.

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A quiet man by nature, he promised a different kind of reign.

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There will be no loud, boisterous outbursts in news conferences or on the track, Gatlin said.

"I am a laid back guy," Gatlin said. "I just want to give a good image to the sport."

His art career has been pushed aside by the intensity of sprint training. Now he has high hopes of making an art of winning.

"I hope to be the Olympic champion again and win some more medals," Gatlin said.

He may not have to wait long.

He and training partner Shawn Crawford are among the favourites in Thursday's 200 metres and the U.S. seem odds-on choices in the 4x100 metres relay in Athens.

The 200 metres was once his favourite event. The 100 metres was for fame and rich rewards such as the $500,000 he won, but has not received, in last September's Moscow Challenge. Now the 100 metres world record is a possibility.

"The race (Sunday) felt so easy, but I felt there were a lot of technical errors," Gatlin said. "I was running with pumped fists, instead of being relaxed. If I had relaxed I could have run 9.8, 9.7. So I still think I have a chance to go out there and break the world record."

As a small child in New York Gatlin would leap fire hydrants to satisfy his athletic desires. His high school coach in Pensacola, Florida, brought out the sprinter in him.

"He had faith in me before I did," Gatlin said.

DOMINANT

So dominant was Gatlin in college that he won six championships in two years at the University of Tennessee.

He could not compete internationally, though. A failed doping test in 2001 for a banned stimulant left him ineligible to race the world's elite. The substance was contained in medication Gatlin had taken for years to treat an attention deficit disorder.

The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) ruled that the usage was inadvertent and reinstated Gatlin in July 2002.

That autumn, Gatlin decided to move on, figuring he had accomplished all he could as a college runner.

He chose Trevor Graham, then the coach of triple Olympic champion Marion Jones and 100 metres world record holder Tim Montgomery, to be his mentor.

Success came quickly. In his first season as a professional, Gatlin rocketed to the 2003 world indoor 60 metres championship.

Injury and fright unfortunately followed.

Rounding the curve in a 200 metres race at Mexico City, Gatlin severely injured a hamstring. He could not train properly for weeks.

"I was scared," Gatlin said. "I had never been injured like that."

He tried to rush back in time for the 2003 U.S. championships, but he failed to make the American world championship team. His rich triumph in the Moscow Challenge would be his consolation.

Over the winter the hype began to build that Gatlin would be the successor to Greene. Again, though, the young sprinter stumbled. In an Eugene, Oregon, race two months ago where Crawford ran 9.88 seconds, Gatlin came last. A sluggish start left him behind and he never caught up.

Gatlin and his coach spent hours refreshing his start.

For motivation, Gatlin added a new tattoo. 'Live to fight, fight to live,' it said.

The words convey his feeling for the sport, Gatlin said. Every race is a fight.

Sunday was no different. Gatlin had the slowest reaction time of the eight 100 metres finalists, yet he fought his way to the front and stayed there.

A new age had arrived in American sprinting.


More features | Athens 2004: The Complete Coverage

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