Olympic champ Gatlin headlines 100-meter prelims

Updated: August 5, 2005, 12:42 PM ET
Associated Press

HELSINKI, Finland -- Olympic champion Justin Gatlin climbs into the blocks for the 100-meter preliminaries, the American men go for a shot put sweep and Britain's Paula Radcliffe begins her quest for atonement after her Athens debacle.

The world track and field championships, one of the largest athletic gatherings outside the Olympics, begin on Saturday with the first of nine days of suspense, surprise and subplots.

"This is where new stars are made, old stars fade away," said Allen Johnson, at 34 seeking his fifth world title in the 110 hurdles.

While opening day conditions should be dry, weather later on could be a problem in this northern of European capitals, where the extended forecast calls for light rain much of the coming week. That could slow the times and shorten the distances, but probably won't dampen the intensity of the meet staged the year after and the year before each Olympics.

"I figure as long as it's not just raining in my lane, then all eight women will have to go through the same thing," said American Joanna Hayes, Olympic gold medalist in the 100 hurdles.

The meet returns to Helsinki after 22 years. The Finnish city was site of the first world championships in 1983.

Olympic Stadium was completed in 1938 for what was to have been the 1940 Olympics. When the Olympic movement resumed after World War II, the stadium served as the centerpiece for the 1952 Helsinki Games.

Just beyond the entrance is a statue of Paavo Nurmi, the "Flying Finn" who won nine Olympic gold medals in running events in the 1920s, only a few years after the country gained its independence following centuries of domination by Sweden and Russia.

Nearly all of the events will be in the daylight hours, because the sun doesn't set until after 9:30 p.m. local time.

Gatlin begins a busy week, when he plans to compete in the 100 and 200, as well as anchor the 400 relay. The first two rounds of the 100 are Saturday, with the semifinals and finals on Sunday. The 23-year-old American was deprived of his showdown with world record holder Asafa Powell when the Jamaican withdrew with a groin injury, but there are plenty of others who can beat him on any given day, including U.S. teammates Shawn Crawford and Leonard Scott.

Gatlin thrives in this kind of environment.

"I like the pressure," he said. "I like the eyes watching. I like to show the crowd."

Gatlin is part of a youth movement intent on cleaning up track's steroid-stained image.

"It's going to motivate us all to stay clean," said Sanya Richards, at 20 already a two-time U.S. 400 champion, "because of the embarrassment and shame that comes to the sport with doing drugs."

Finals are scheduled Saturday in the men's shot put, women's 10,000 meters and men's 20-kilometer walk.

The American trio of John Godina, Christian Cantwell and Adam Nelson has the nine best shot put marks in the world this year, so a sweep would seem a distinct possibility.

Of course, that was the case in Athens a year ago, when Godina, Nelson and Reese Hoffa had thrown farther than any of the others in the competition. Only Nelson came away with a medal, his second Olympic silver.

"It's never been done, so it would be awesome," Godina said of a sweep. "We've been talking about how it should happen a lot, but when you take the USA vs. the entire earth, it's very hard to get three people on the podium."

The 33-year-old Godina, seeking his fourth world title, has the top two throws in the world this year. His best was 72 feet, 10 inches at the U.S. championships, but he has been bothered by a series of nagging injuries recently.

Cantwell, the 2004 world indoor champion, had the top four marks in the world last year but failed to make the Olympic team, fouling all but one of his attempts at the U.S. trials.

Radcliffe will run in the 10,000, the final event on Saturday night, but she is a long shot in a race where the favorites include young Ethiopian sisters Tirunesh and Ejegayehu Dibaba. Radcliffe has said she is using the 10,000 as a warmup for the marathon next Saturday. She failed to finish either race at the Athens Olympics.

The heptathlon begins Saturday, with Olympic champion Carolina Kluft of Sweden the big favorite. She sprained her left ankle in training Friday but her trainer downplayed the significance of the injury.

"The only thing that will be noticeable is that [the foot] will be taped tomorrow," trainer Agne Bergwall said. "Besides that, it shouldn't have any effect."


Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press