The fastest man of 2004 is in no hurry to go anywhere. In the 60m sprint strip next to him, Jason Gardener could well face the fastest man of all time, the 100m world record- holder Tim Montgomery, in the Norwich Union Grand Prix on Friday night. For the time being, though, the pride of Bath and Wessex Athletics Club is content to sit on a bench in the centre of the National Indoor Arena in Birmingham, mulling over the whys and wherefores of his unchallenged position sitting on top of the world ranking lists.
Gardener's victory in the 60m at the European Indoor Cup in Leipzig yesterday, in 6.51sec, was his ninth in nine races at the distance this year. He goes for his 10th in Karlsruhe this afternoon. The smooth-striding West Countryman stands apart at the head of the global pecking order with the fastest time of the year, 6.49sec, and the next five quickest too. He has also run the joint seventh fastest, 6.54sec, together with Kostantyn Rurak of Ukraine. The American speed merchants are conspicuously absent from the sharp end of the list.
A wind of change is beginning to sweep through life in the international fast lanes - or so it would seem. It could be mere coincidence, but the US go-slow has followed the tetrahydrogestrinone (THG) designer-steroid scandal and the subsequent drugs clampdown in American track and field. There was even the hint of a breath of fresh air while the testers were busily testing behind the scenes last summer. For the first time in 20 years the winning time in a global 100m final was outside 10 seconds, Kim Collins taking the World Championships title in Paris in 10.07sec. For the first time in seven years, the US failed to win a medal.
Gardener, for one, is convinced that the testers are finally catching up with the cheats. "Oh, that's the way I see it," he says. "I'm educated enough to know that the times aren't just slower because people have been caught using THG. I wasn't in Paris last August; I don't know what the conditions were like, or the track. But I think if you look at the bigger picture, throughout the past 12 months, world-class sprinting hasn't been what it was in the past.
"I can only take it that the message coming from Wada [the World Anti-Doping Agency], the IAAF [the International Association of Athletics Federations] and the authorities here in Britain is scaring people. I think it is having an effect on performances. I'd certainly like to believe that. As an athlete who's competing within the rules I'd like to think the message is hitting these guys, and that the drug takers are being caught. If the sport is doing that, it's making it possible for people like myself to win within the rules.
"It's boosted me already, seeing the World Championships being run in moderate times last summer. That's a boost for me, because I'm not that far away from getting back to those times. I ran 10.17sec last summer, and the world record [9.78sec] and European record [9.87sec] were recorded just the previous year. That's a huge margin from what I did last summer, but now the gap is not so big. I can see myself making up the difference."
Time has indeed changed swiftly in the sprinting game since Montgomery clocked his world record 9.78sec and Dwain Chambers equalled Linford Christie's European record, 9.87sec, in the IAAF Grand Prix final in Paris in September 2002. In the aftermath, Montgomery spoke of the dawning of a golden age - of himself, Chambers and a rejuvenated Maurice Greene pushing the human speed limit under 9.75sec in 2003.
As it happened, Montgomery and Chambers failed to break 10 seconds last summer, or to finish among the medals at the World Championships. Greene, Montgomery's US team-mate, failed to reach the World Championships final.
Worse was to come for Chambers. Having switched his training base from north London to San Francisco, the British hulk tested positive for THG. He faces a hearing this week, and a two-year suspension. In San Francisco on Thursday his coach, Remi Korchemny, was charged with supplying drugs to athletes. Montgomery, who has yet to decide whether to race against Gardener in Friday night's meeting, has also became embroiled in the affair. Together with his partner Marion Jones, who competes in the women's 60m and the long jump in Birmingham, he was required to testify to a federal grand jury in San Francisco investigating Victor Conte, a nutritionist, to whose Californian laboratory THG was allegedly traced.
"It's funny how a year can change things," Gardener mused. "Obviously, Dwain's situation is that it appears he's not going to be around for a couple of years. And Tim Montgomery has got other pressures, with the court case in America concerning the guy who's allegedly been supplying these drugs. So they've got other issues that are taking their attention, their focus. Me? I've nothing to worry about. I can just concentrate on what I'm doing."
What Gardener has been doing, with his domination of the indoor season, is striking another big blow for the little guys of the sprint world. With his sleek physique and his graceful sprinting style, the highly affable, highly articulate media studies graduate has picked up the baton from the surprise World Championships success enjoyed by the equally smooth-striding and even more slender Collins in Paris last August. A native of St Kitts and Nevis, Collins claims to be "the only natural sprinter in the world". "I don't take no vitamins and I don't do no weights," he proudly proclaimed in Paris.
Gardener laughs at a reminder of the world champion's self-appraisal. "Yeah, Kim does have a similar physique to mine," he says. "In fact, he is skinnier than me, and we are different. I do weights and I do take vitamins, but I don't take drugs. That's where we agree on the same thing. But it was refreshing to see someone of his physique come through and win at the World Championships.
"That's really encouraging, opposed to what we've seen in the past: these big muscle-bound sprinters, looking like body- builders, powering down the tracks. I take great confidence from that, definitely."
It is clear from his beaming countenance and from the equanimity of his demeanour that Gardener's confidence has been fully restored since the setback he suffered last summer, when he failed to secure one of the three 100m berths in the British team for the World Championships - a depressingly familiar summer setback for him. Not since 1999, when he ran 9.98sec in Lausanne, a time which ranks him third fastest-ever European (behind Chambers and Christie), has the man known as "the Bath Bullet" hit the target in an outdoor season.
His form that summer was carried through from an indoor campaign in which he broke Christie's European 60m record when clocking 6.46sec to take the bronze medal behind Greene and his fellow American Tim Harden at the World Indoor Championships in Maebashi, Japan. The promising thing now, with the Athens Olympics on the horizon, and with this year's World Indoor Championships in Budapest just three weeks away, is that Gardener is threatening to break his European record, without having yet been extended thus far in the 2004 indoor season.
"I know I'm going to run faster," he says, "whether there's someone on my shoulder or not. In terms of confidence, I think breaking the European record would be a fantastic achievement. I ran 9.98sec the sum- mer after my run in Maebashi, so if I can get a personal best in this indoor season then I think there's no reason I can't look forward to the same kind of success I had outdoors in 1999. I have the capacity to run faster than I've ever run before at 100m."
In recent years Gardener has been in high-speed form on the boards - European indoor champion in 2000 and 2002, World Indoor Championships bronze medallist in 2003 (0.05sec behind Collins at the National Indoor Arena, despite carrying a hamstring injury) - only to struggle when he has stepped outdoors. This year, though, he feels stronger than before, the benefit of 18 months' training under Malcolm Arnold, the coach who guided Colin Jackson to an Aladdin's Cave of major championship medals plus a 110m hurdles world record that has stood for 11 years now, and who also helped the Ugandan John Akii-Bua strike Olympic gold with a stunning 400m hurdles world record in Munich in 1972.
Gold in Budapest would place Arnold's latest protégé on a pedestal alongside Harold Abrahams, Allan Wells and Christie, the only Britons to have won global titles in short-sprint events. All three, of course, won Olympic laurels at 100m. Christie won World Championships gold, too - outdoors, over 100m. No British sprinter has yet won the 60m at the World Indoor Championships.
"Different people have different perspectives on the indoor season," Gardener pondered. "But as far as I'm concerned it's an opportunity to be a world champion, and the last sprinter who was a world champion on these shores was Linford. For me, to be a world champion would be a fantastic thing. It would be the best moment of my athletics career. And it could only set me up for the summer."
A summer of the cleanest of competition for Olympic sprint glory, possibly.
Born: 18 September 1975 in Bath.
Events: 100m outdoors, 60m indoors.
Club: Bath and Wessex AC.
Personal bests: Outdoors: 100m: 9.98 (1998). 150m: 15.99 (1994). 200m: 20.65 (1995). 4 x 100m: 37.73 (1999).
Indoors: 50m: 5.61 (2000). 60m: 6.46 (1999). 200m: 21.97 (1994).
Titles: European Indoor 60m champion (2000, 2002).
Also: Seventh 100m final 1999 World Championships; Reached 2000 Olympic 100m quarter-finals. Bronze 60m World Indoor Championships (1999, 2001); silver 60m European Indoor Championships (1998); silver 100m World Junior Championships (1994).Reuse content