ATHENS, Greece -- Justin Gatlin was overshadowed all weekend by a flamboyant training partner and an illustrious teammate. So he sped past both of them, outrunning the fastest Olympic field ever to snatch the 100-meter gold medal.
Gatlin ran the race of his life Sunday to become the youngest champion in 36 years, barely holding off Portugal's Francis Obikwelu and defending gold medalist Maurice Greene to win in 9.85 seconds.
"It's a new era for young athletes all over the world," said Gatlin, who at 22 is leading the changing of the guard in track and field. "Young guys, young women, all of us are taking over. Watch out, we're coming."
Obikwelu finished in 9.86 for the silver medal. Greene, trying to become the first man since Carl Lewis in 1984 and '88 to win back-to-back Olympic 100s, took bronze in 9.87.
A third American, Shawn Crawford, was fourth in 9.89. Five runners broke the 10-second mark, and another -- world champion Kim Collins -- finished in exactly 10 seconds. It was the first time in Olympic history that five men broke 10 seconds in a race. Four did it at the 1996 Atlanta Games.
After the race Sunday, Gatlin's coach, Trevor Graham has admitted he was the coach who anonymously sent a syringe of THG to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, a key piece of evidence in the BALCO case that helped lead to suspensions and possible lifetime bans against several athletes.
"I was just a coach doing the right thing at the time,'' Graham said. "I have no regrets.''
Sunday's race was the closest finish in an Olympic 100 final since the 1980 Moscow Games, when Allan Wells of Britain held off Silvio Leonard of Cuba as the two were timed in 10.25.
Gatlin's previous personal best was 9.92. He finished the race with his mouth wide open, then dropped to his knees and clasped his hands in prayer. Then he jumped into the stands.
"The race was magnificent. The only way I knew the race was great is because I watched it on TV," Gatlin said. "I couldn't even feel the race. I felt that I was 100 miles in front of everybody. It was so close, but that's what I felt."
He is the youngest winner since Jim Hines at the 1968 Mexico City Games. Gatlin turned 22 on February 10; Hines had just turned 22 when he won.
Gatlin won six NCAA titles in his two seasons at Tennessee, then won the 60-meter title at the world indoor championships last year. But the Athens spotlight had been focused on the swaggering Greene, who was trying to live up to the Greatest Of All Time acronym tattooed on his arm, and Crawford, who ran the first round with a baseball cap turned backward, pretended to spike a football after the second round and high-stepped the last 20 meters of his semifinal while jawing at Gatlin.
As Greene wore shoes painted like the American flag and Crawford wore one black spike and one white, Gatlin's feet didn't get a second glance -- even though they proved fastest of all.
Crawford gave Gatlin a huge hug after his victory. Both are trained by Trevor Graham, the former mentor of Marion Jones and Tim Montgomery -- who holds the 100 world record of 9.78, but did not qualify for the Olympics and has been charged with steroid use.
Gatlin himself tested positive for an amphetamine at the 2001 U.S. junior championships. The drug was contained in prescription medication Gatlin had been taking for 10 years to treat a form of attention deficit disorder.
The International Association of Athletics Federations gave him early reinstatement from a two-year ban in July 2002. But the IAAF said a second violation would lead to a life ban.
Gatlin, a Brooklyn, N.Y., native who now lives in Raleigh, N.C., said his victory was just the first of what he hopes will be many historic accomplishments.
"I said it was going to be the most exciting race in the world, and it was," he said. "This is what I train for, that's why I shoveled the snow off North Carolina tracks. That's why I'm here. I'm here to win the gold medal."
Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press
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