A changing of the guard

Justin Gatlin (right, in picture), wins a close battle for the men's 100m gold. Francis Obikwelu came second, while Maurice Greene finished third. -- Pic. AP-Justin Gatlin (right, in picture), wins a close battle for the men's 100m gold. Francis Obikwelu came second, while Maurice Greene finished third. -- Pic. AP

It was the fastest 100-metre field in Olympic history, with five of the eight runners posting times under 10 seconds, writes LIZ ROBBINS.

JUSTIN GATLIN could not feel his feet soaring to history, nor could he see any other runner beside him. The festival atmosphere in the jam-packed Olympic Stadium, rocking only minutes before with Greek Syrtaki dance music, had stopped long enough for 10 breathless seconds.

Gatlin, 22, was locked in his own moment of time. He burst out of the blocks and stormed inches ahead of the field, crossing the finish line in 9.85 seconds, knowing instantly he was an Olympic champion.

"The race was magnificent," he said. "I couldn't even feel the race. I felt that I was 100 miles in front of everybody."

Instead, he was only a hundredth of a second in front of Francis Obikwelu of Portugal (9.86), who was a hundredth of a second in front of Maurice Greene, the defending Olympic champion. It was the fastest 100-metre field in Olympic history, with five of the eight runners posting times under 10 seconds, including the fourth-place finisher, Shawn Crawford (9.89), and Asafa Powell of Jamaica, who finished fifth in 9.94.

While representing a changing of the guard in the 100, Gatlin's dash also had a more serious implication after a season of drug scandal.

Gatlin's coach, Trevor Graham, confirmed after the race that he was the coach who sent a syringe containing the designer steroid THG to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency; the discovery of THG played a critical role in the investigation of the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative and led to the banning of nearly a dozen track and field athletes.

"Just a coach doing the right thing at the time," Graham said. "No regrets."

Graham, who trains Gatlin and Crawford, formerly coached the sprinters Marion Jones and Tim Montgomery, the world-record holder (9.78) in the 100 metres. Montgomery is among six of Graham's former athletes who have tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs.

On the night of August 22, Graham watched his star pupil, Gatlin, run a near-perfect race. Graham said last season that Gatlin could be the next Carl Lewis.

"He's on his way," Graham said. "Now he's just got to go out and contain it."

Gatlin arrived in Graham's camp in Raleigh, North Carolina, after his sophomore year at the University of Tennessee. After his freshman year, when he was the national champion in the 100 and 200 metres, Gatlin tested positive for a banned stimulant, adderall, which was in his medication for attention-deficit disorder. On appeal with the world track federation, his sentence was reduced to one year of international ineligibility from two years.

"I am a clean champion; I go out there every day and do what I do," Gatlin said. "We want to bring positivity back to the sport. I just want to go out there and show them that, hey, I can run with a smile on my face."

Greene, 30, had nearly guaranteed a gold medal in Athens, where he won his first world championship, in 1997, and ran 9.79 in 1999 for the world record. He did not concede that he had passed the mantle.

"I thought he ran a remarkable race; you have to give it to him," Greene said about Gatlin.

After the race, when Gatlin went to blow kisses to his parents, Jeanette and Willie Gatlin, before taking his victory lap with the American flag, Greene went around the stadium and shook hands with fans.

"I don't think there's another sprinter out there who has accomplished the things I have," Greene said afterwards, sitting next to Gatlin. "I'm making it hard for the next person to come along and do things better than me. I'm making it hard for them. Until then, I'll be the greatest."

Ever after running the fastest time in the world this season, Gatlin called Greene a great champion. "I was just shocked that my dream came true," said Gatlin. "I had been watching people make history like Maurice Greene, Marion Jones."

He realised he could be part of that group. "That's what I'm trying for, to be the greatest of all time," he said. "You always have to prove yourself every race."

On the race day, Gatlin did what Crawford, his flamboyant team-mate, could not, backing up his style with substance. He and Crawford had put on a show in the semifinals, when Crawford turned to him with five metres to go and shouted, "Come on, boy, do what you do!"

Before the finals, as the fans were clapping and dancing for 15 minutes, Gatlin and Crawford were chest-bumping each other, pointing to the track. It was a far different experience for Gatlin in the holding room before the runners went out on the track.

Gatlin said a man claiming to be an official with the International Association of Athletics Federations started taking pictures of his tattoos, getting too close to him. "He tried to get into my zone," Gatlin said. "I was mad, but I calmed down, just enough to use all that energy to go out there and run fast."

At age five, living on the Army base at Fort Hamilton in New York, Gatlin would hurdle fire hydrants. His family moved to Pensacola, Florida, and he ran hurdles in high school after trying out for football, basketball and swimming.

"I was always rambunctious," said Gatlin, whose laid-back personality belies his determination.

"I go out there thinking I'm an Olympic champion all the time."

New York Times News Service