Athletics: Breath of fresh air turns to whiff of scandal for new kid off the blocks

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The Independent Online

American 100 metres stars have not always been known for their charm. So, after the brash sloganeering of Maurice Greene and the wary petulance of Tim Montgomery, Justin Gatlin's emergence as the new kid off the blocks appeared to be a boon to a sport always anxious to improve its image.

Whereas Greene, with his self-proclaiming GOAT tattoo (standing, in case you could not guess, for Greatest Of All Time) appeared like a man who had been programmed to say two or perhaps three things on any given occasion, the Brooklyn-born youngster with more than a passing resemblance to Will Smith soon showed that his gifts extended beyond fast legs. He had the gift of the gab. When he smiled, his teeth shone as brightly as the diamond in his left ear. He smiled a lot. And - until the doping revelation which has sent shock waves through athletics and caused him, according to friends, to cry for days on end - he had a lot to smile about.

The 2004 Olympic final was seen beforehand as a rivalry between Greene, the defending champion, and the Jamaican who had shown outstanding form in pre-Olympic meetings, Asafa Powell. But both were surprised by Gatlin, who became the youngest Olympic 100m champion since Jim Hines in 1968 before adding silver in the 100m relay and bronze in the 200m. A year later, in Powell's absence, he became double world champion and in May of this year in Doha he equalled Powell's 100m world record of 9.77sec.

"I am the best of the best because I am the Olympic champion, the world champion and the world record-holder now," said Gatlin, who went on to forecast a "new era" in his career. He could well turn out to be right.

In the aftermath of his Doha success, which he dedicated to God and his parents, Gatlin predicted: "You will see many more performances like this from me in the future." But, apart from the US Championships, it was his last appearance of the season.

Gatlin had emerged to international recognition by beating Mark Lewis-Francis to take the 2003 world indoor 60m title in Birmingham, although he had already come to the notice of the international federation as a 19-year-old when his sample showed traces of amphetamines. He was given a two-year ban, although he was allowed back into the sport within two months as the authorities were satisfied that the adverse test had been caused by medication he took for attention deficit disorder.

Asked last year about his growing rivalry with Powell, he waxed lyrical. "Don't you love that?" he said. "The story behind it? The Olympic champion against the world record holder. And that's what we're trying to do right now - uplift track and field." He added that his Olympic win had taken place to a background of support from young athletes throughout America.

"They call me and tell my about their progress in their track and field meets, and I support them in the same way they support me." Right now this 24-year-old product of a middle-class Brooklyn family - his father has a military background and his mother works in marketing with a New York advertising company - will be in need of all the support he can get. He will be looking not just to his family, but to his agent, the former world high-hurdles record-holder Renaldo Nehemiah, who has spoken idealistically in the past about his young charge's qualities.

"My whole motivation when I was running, I called it the Wow System," Nehemiah said. "I always wanted to wow people. It was about how much fun I had, taking time out to meet people, to have people cheer for me and have the utmost respect for me because of the way I played the game. That's the same thing I try to impart to all of my clients, including Justin.

"He is very disciplined and respectful. I've told him that when it's time for him to leave the sport, if he's only remembered for how fast he ran I'd be sort of disappointed in him." It seems as if Nehemiah is about to have his wish, although not in the way he would have wanted.

The 100m roll of shame

* BEN JOHNSON

Won Olympic 100m gold in 1988 but tested positive for the anabolic steroid Stanozolol.

* JASON LIVINGSTON

Before the 1992 Games, tested positive for the steroid methandianone.

* DWAIN CHAMBERS

Tested positive for the "designer" steroid tetrahydrogestrinone after being implicated in the Balco scandal.

* LINFORD CHRISTIE

The 1992 Olympic champion tested positive for nandrolone at the end of his career.

* TIM MONTGOMERY

Banned after being implicated in the Balco scandal.

* MICHELLE COLLINS

Banned after being implicated in the Balco scandal.

* KELLI WHITE

Banned after testing positive for the stimulant modafinil.

* CHRYSTE GAINES

Banned after testing positive for modafinil.

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