In battle of Gatlin-Powell, athletics wins
20 June 2006
By Robert Falkoff
Every sport can receive a jolt of enthusiasm from time to time when two competitors clearly rise above the field and prompt intense debates about who's No. 1.
Whether it's Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier, the Lakers and Celtics of the 1980s or Texas-Southern California in last year's college football national title game, the aura of two truly dominant forces battling for superiority can only enhance that sport's popularity.
World athletics is experiencing that same type of buzz right now, thanks to 100m superstars Justin Gatlin and Asafa Powell, who share the world record at 9.77 and are warily circling each other in advance of their scheduled July 28 match race at Crystal Palace Stadium in London.
Is Gatlin the world's fastest human? Or is Powell? The longer the issue remains unresolved, the more athletics will be able to bask in the sporting spotlight with pro-Gatlin forces pumping up their man and pro-Powell fans countering with a different prediction of the outcome.
Mike Takaha, who was an assistant track coach at the University of Houston for 20 years and formerly a mentor for Carl Lewis, views Gatlin-Powell as the most intriguing 100m rivalry since Lewis and Ben Johnson during the late 1980s.
"Carl and Ben did not like each other," Takaha said. "They truly didn't. I don't think that same kind of personal animosity is there right now with Gatlin and Powell. But there is a genuine rivalry because of what each man has been able to accomplish.
"Anytime you have two guys who are sharing a world record, the public is going to want to see them line up and settle the question of who's faster in a head-to-head race. There's a natural curiosity that grows and creates great anticipation."
With that growing anticipation, dollar signs begin to dance in the heads of organizers who want to host the first 100m race between Gatlin and Powell. A competition that will last less than 10 seconds takes plenty of time to arrange when a nerve has been struck with the public.
Fast Track, the organizer for the Norwich Union London Grand Prix event on July 28, where Gatlin and Powell have agreed to meet, isn't home free in its bid to host the first Gatlin-Powell matchup. As noted last week here on WCSN.com, there have been rumors that other meet organizers might step up with the checkbook and attempt to trump Fast Track.
The IAAF Golden League meets in Paris (July 8) and Rome (July 14) and Grand Prix meets in Athens (July 1) and Lausanne (July 11) are possibilities for waving enough dollars at Gatlin and Powell to get them together for the first match race.
"Track athletes are basically independent contractors," Takaha said. "They are going to run where they think they can make the most money. Since there is no World Championships or Olympics this year, they pretty much can do whatever they want as long as they don't price themselves out of the market."
The clamor for Gatlin versus Powell has been accelerating since Gatlin was ultimately clocked at 9.77 in early May at Doha to equal Powell's world record. Powell first set the mark on June 14, 2005. The pair had been scheduled to run against each other last Sunday at Gateshead, England. But Gatlin was home in Raleigh, N.C., getting ready for the USA National Championships on June 21-25 in Indianapolis while Powell was winning at Gateshead.
The decision by Gatlin not to run at Gateshead merely paves the way for further build-up.
"[Gatlin and Powell] have definitely separated themselves from everybody else," Takaha said. "A bad race for them right now is 9.8. Nobody else can really do that."
Gatlin burst into prominence as a collegiate sprinter at the University of Tennessee, winning consecutive NCAA titles in the 100m and 200m in 2001 and 2002. He turned pro thereafter and his career reached a high point in 2004, when he became the Olympic 100m gold medalist in Athens, Greece. Gatlin came back with a stellar season in 2005, highlighted by victories in the 100m and 200m at the World Outdoor Championships in Helsinki, Finland.
For a brief time, Gatlin appeared to have set a world record last month at Doha. But his original clocking of 9.76 turned out to be a clerical error and was rounded up to 9.77.
Following the ruling that Gatlin had tied but not broken Powell's record, the rivalry gained additional fuel.
"This is just more incentive for Justin to go out and break the world record again officially," said Renaldo Nehemiah, the agent for Gatlin, in an interview with BBC Sport. "He is in excellent shape for this time of the year. That bodes well for him."
Powell again ran a 9.77 last Sunday while Gatlin was resting in the U.S. Powell's first 9.77 a year ago broke the 9.78 mark of American sprinter Tim Montgomery nearly three years earlier in Paris. Powell has bounced back in strong fashion since finishing a disappointing fifth at the 2004 Olympics after arriving as the favorite.
"When I'm in Jamaica, people say to me 'You have to beat Justin Gatlin.' When I come to Europe, they say the same thing," Powell told BBC Sport. "It feels like there is a load on my back, but I'm learning to handle the pressure. Justin is more experienced than me, but I'm learning."
Takaha considers Gatlin to have a more consistent start from the blocks. Powell is capable of getting an excellent break, but has had some periodic poor starts.
"As the race goes on, Powell might have a little more top-end speed. But he tends not to be as consistent as Gatlin," Takaha said. "Gatlin seems to be ready to go for each race. Powell has races where he may not be as pumped up. But when they are running against each other, I don't think that will be a problem."
Pressed to predict a winner in a Gatlin-Powell match race, Takaha laughed and said: "I have no idea. I think they are evenly matched. It's just going to come down to who happens to be at his best on that given day."
It may come down to a psyche job. In an interview with The Guardian, Powell called the legality of Gatlin's 9.77 clocking "suspicious" on the grounds it was might have been aided by winds higher than the IAFF-allowed maximum of two meters per second.
"Other athletes [who ran in the Doha race] say the wind must have been plus four or five," Powell told the Guardian.
But Takaha, who now works for Flash Results in Texas handling meets at all levels from youth to national championships, said his understanding was that the wind reading at Doha was 1.7.
"I think the time was legit," Takaha said.
Gatlin, who won the 100m race at the Reebok Grand Prix meet in New York City last Saturday, has indicated he's focusing on beating other American sprinters at the Nationals in Indianapolis instead of looking ahead to a matchup with Powell.
There will be plenty of time for the hype to build after Gatlin leaves Indiana.
The Gatlin supporters are convinced their man is the world's fastest human. The Powell supporters are just as convinced their man will prevail.
Somebody has to lose this battle of superstar sprinters. But as the spotlight shines brightly on these two, the world of athletics has already won.
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