RALEIGH, North Carolina (Reuters) - Justin Gatlin is learning how to sprint again, a fact that has little to do with the American’s four-year absence from athletics under a doping ban.
With a new coach and a new philosophy on running, the former Olympic and world champion is working hard to get back to top speed.
“Everything I learned I had to throw it out the window and learn a whole new technique,” Gatlin told Reuters in a telephone interview from Naples, Florida.
Maximum velocity is now his aim.
“Maximum velocity is your top end running speed, the maximum speed you can generate down the track,” said Gatlin’s new coach, Loren Seagrave.
“Although people spend a heck of a lot of time on the start, it (maximum velocity) is the single biggest determinant of who wins and who doesn’t win,” said the veteran coach.
“Particularly in the men’s races, as they are looking at dipping well into the 9.5s, because people are not decelerating any more. The only reason they are decelerating is because of celebration,” Seagrave added.
Gatlin, the 2004 Olympic 100 meters champion and 200 meters bronze medalist, has not competed since 2006 when, then coached by Trevor Graham, he failed a doping test for excessive amounts of testosterone, the second positive of his career.
He was banned for two years in 2001 for a failed test for amphetamines, but the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) reduced the suspension to one year after Gatlin pointed out the substance was found in medication he had taken since childhood for attention deficit disorder.
His current ban expires on July 24.
“I have a second chance to redeem myself,” said the soon-to-be 28-year-old. “To go out and prove to the world that I am a great athlete.”
The goal was to have Gatlin running some of the fastest times in the world by late August and early September, Seagrave said.
“He has got all the physical tools to be able to run in the (9.)70s, maybe even the 60s,” the coach said.
It could be up to 18 months before Gatlin reached his full potential, Seagrave stressed.
Fast 100 meters times will be necessary for Gatlin to keep up with today’s top sprinters -- Jamaican double world record holder Usain Bolt, American world silver medalist Tyson Gay and Jamaican Asafa Powell, the former world record holder.
“I could beat them before,” Gatlin said. “I don’t see why I can’t run with them. Times don’t scare me. You’ve got to respect the times but I feel if one man can do it, then the next man can.”
His personal best of 9.85 seconds and even his 2006 world record-equaling 9.77 seconds that was nullified by his doping ban are significantly slower, however, than the best marks of Bolt (9.58 seconds) and Gay (9.69).
“I think he’s going to have his hands full, not only by me and Asafa and Tyson, but other young and upcoming athletes,” Bolt told the Jamaica Observer.
Gatlin, though, said he did not believe his age or long absence would be a deterrent.
“I think that me sitting out for this while, having this hiatus, has elongated my life in the sport,” he said. “I think it is prime time for me.”
Whether the 2005 double sprint world champion will run again in prime time one-day meetings is debatable.
Organizers of the new Diamond League circuit and key European meetings have agreed in principle not to invite athletes who have served major doping bans.
”If that’s how they feel at this point, that is how they feel,“ Gatlin said. ”Hopefully (if) they want excitement at their track, they want fast times and good competition, they will see past those kinds of things.
“I feel that it is so wrong for different meets to try to blackball people when these people have been weighed and they have served their time.”
Both the IAAF and USA Track & Field (USATF) said they would not interfere with organizers determining who competes in their meetings.
“Meet directors have always had the freedom to use their own discretion as to whom they invite,” USATF spokeswoman Jill Geer said in an e-mail.
The IAAF had a similar reaction. “Our position is simply that the athlete is eligible after coming back from doping suspension, and we don’t interfere with the choice of individual meeting directors,” spokesman Nick Davies said.
Gatlin has repeatedly denied knowingly taking performance-enhancing drugs and has severed all links with Graham, who was banned for life from coaching after being convicted of lying to federal agents in connection with the Bay Area Laboratory Cooperative (BALCO) doping scandal.
Twice last year, USATF sent Gatlin to tell his story to small groups of young athletes, focusing on the importance of competing clean and the consequences of failing a doping test.
“We felt that young athletes could learn from Justin’s mistakes,” Geer said.
Gatlin tried out for several National Football League (NFL) teams without success before deciding to stay in athletics.
“It was like, why should I be someone like a walk-on or someone trying to make his way up to the top, when I can go back to a sport where I once was a king,” Gatlin said.
“I can’t be without track, and hopefully track can’t be without me too long.”
Editing by Clare Fallon; To query or comment on this story email firstname.lastname@example.org