U.S. Olympic track and field trials: Justin Gatlin’s comeback is not yet complete, but Usain Bolt is in his sights

June 24, 2012

The fastest man in the country walked off the track and tried to catch his breath. Each congratulatory hug squeezed a bit more air out of him, but he wasn’t complaining.

Recent hardships buoyed Justin Gatlin’s sense of accomplishment, but it was impossible to ignore what exactly his blistering performance at Sunday’s U.S. Olympic track and field trials had earned him: a likely date with Usain Bolt and his speedy Jamaican teammates.

“It’s not going to take just one person,” Gatlin said. “I can’t sit here and say I’m going to take down the world or the Jamaicans by myself. It’s going to take an arsenal.”

A bad drug test forced Gatlin to miss four years’ worth of competition. While he was away, Bolt established himself as a runner without peer. After posting a personal-best time of 9.80 seconds in the men’s 100 meters Sunday, Gatlin provided hints that a competitive race might await Bolt in London.

At the very least, Gatlin certainly isn’t willing to concede anything to Bolt, Yohan Blake or Asafa Powell, who’ve combined to post five of the six fastest 100-meter times the world has seen this year.

“I don’t think I would come back to a sport where I’m okay with getting second or third,” Gatlin said.

Gatlin’s American teammates aren’t much for consolation prizes either. Tyson Gay, who missed a full year of competition due to a hip injury, finished second to Gatlin on Sunday with a time of 9.86. “Bittersweet,” he called the finish.

“I always want to win,” he said. “Came in second. I guess at the end of the day, it’s about making the team, so I got to make sure I turn this little frown into a happy face.”

Ryan Bailey (9.93) finished third and will accompany Gay and Gatlin to London. Walter Dix, the reigning national champ, tweaked his hamstring in the day’s semifinal race and finished last in the final (10.95), more than a second behind the winner.

Sunday’s other big story unfolded slowly away from the track. Following the men’s race, U.S. Track and Field officials inched closer to determining the precise outcome of the women’s 100 meters, which was run one day earlier. That race finished with a dead heat tie for third place between Allyson Felix and Jeneba Tarmoh.

Because only three Americans can compete in the women’s 100 in London, either Felix or Tarmoh will not make the team in that event, but the USATF had no procedures in place to break the tie.

After more than 24 hours of deliberating, the organizations announced Sunday evening that the third sprinter will be selected by either a run-off or a coin flip. The two athletes will have an opportunity to decide which they prefer, but it all must be sorted out by the end of the trials next weekend.

As of Sunday evening, the athletes had yet to notify USATF of their preference.

By comparison, the men’s 100-meter final was a lot simpler to understand. Gatlin was fast out of the blocks and breezed down the track. His finish was the best of his career and the fastest by an American since Gay’s 9.79 in April 2011.

Gatlin’s 9.8 time — five-hundredths of a second faster than his gold-medal performance at the 2004 Olympics — is the third fastest in the world this year. Only Bolt has done better — the world record-holder won in 9.76 seconds last month in Rome, and he ran in 9.79 in Oslo 2 ½ weeks ago.

“A lot of people are probably saying the comeback is here,” Gatlin said. “I feel like until I make it to that podium at the Olympics and do what I’m supposed to — fulfill my dreams — that’s my goal.”

Both Gay and Gatlin are in the midst of unique comeback stories, Gatlin returning from suspension and Gay from two surgeries.

Gay went 12 months without a competitive race and wasn‘t even able to jog until March. The trials marked just the second time this season Gay lined up in the blocks.

He left a news conference early Sunday because of cramping but said his hip felt okay during the race. He said he’ll focus the next month on resting his body and making sure he’s physically prepared for London and the Jamaican sprinters.

“I know all those guys are already sharp, they’re running great times,” Gay said. “I know it’s going to be tough. I’m just going to keep on fighting.”

Jamaica’s Olympic track trials begin Thursday, with the 100-meter finals scheduled for Friday, which will provide the biggest indicator to date as to whether the Americans have closed the gap that stung U.S. track four years ago in Beijing.

Notes: A total of 21 athletes earned spots on the Olympic team Sunday. In the women’s 400 meters, Sanya Richards-Ross earned a spot on her third Olympic team, winning with a time of 49.28 seconds, the world’s best finish this year. She was followed by Dee Dee Trotter (50.2) and Francena McCorory (50.43). . . .

LaShawn Merritt will have a chance to defend his gold-medal performance from the 2008 Summer Games after winning the men’s 400 with a time of 44.12 seconds, the best time anyone has posted this year. Tony McQuay (44.49) finished second and Bryshon Nellum (44.80) third. Jeremy Wariner failed in his bid to make his third Olympic team, finishing sixth with a disappointing time of 45.24. . . .

The women’s pole vault was won by Jennifer Suhr (15 feet 1 inch) and she’ll be joined in London by Becky Holliday (14-11) and Lacy Janson (14-9). . . . Marquise Goodwin’s jump of 27 feet 4 inches was good enough to win the men’s long jump. The University of Texas athlete became the first collegian to win an NCAA title and the Olympic trials in the same year since 1960. He was followed by William Claye (27 feet) and George Kitchens Jr. (26-11 ¼). . . .

Stephanie Brown Trafton had no trouble besting the women’s discus field (213 feet 10 inches) and will represent Team USA alongside Aretha Thurmond (204-2) and Suzy Powell-Roos (197-6). . . . Reese Hoffa is headed to his third Olympics after throwing the shot put 72 feet 2 ¼ inches. He’ll be joined by Ryan Whiting (70-¾) and Christian Cantwell (69-9 ¾).

Rick Maese is a sports reporter for The Washington Post.
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