By John Mehaffey
LONDON, May 5 - Olympic 100 metres champion Justin Gatlin has heralded a changing of the guard in an outdoor athletics season embellished by the return of the world championships to Helsinki after 22 years.
You have a lot of stars coming out,'' said Gatlin. You have a lot of excitement going on in track and field. Hopefully I’ll be able to stay afloat.’’
The American opened his season last Saturday by overcoming a five metres gap to anchor the United States to victory in the 4x100 race at the Penn Relays.
On the same day Maurice Greene, Gatlin’s predecessor as Olympic 100 champion, clocked the fastest time of the year with a time of 10.03 in Martinique.
Marion Jones, who won a record five medals at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, led a U.S. sweep in the women’s 100 metres in France’s Caribbean dependency.
Yet before Saturday’s victories, Gatlin had already unintentionally relegated both Greene and Jones to the past tense.
I had the opportunity to watch Michael Johnson, Maurice Greene, Marion Jones -- people who were much older than me who I could look up to and try to emulate,'' he said. They were adults. This day and age, I’m the oldest at 23.’’
While Gatlin is entering his prime, Greene, who finished third in Athens, is now 30. He is still capable of running swift times but is increasingly susceptible to injury and is likely to struggle over four rounds in Helsinki in his quest for a fourth world title.
The Jones saga is more troubled. She has not approached the form she showed in Sydney since taking time out to have a child by her partner Tim Montgomery and has also become embroiled in the BALCO laboratory drugs scandal.
Although neither athlete has ever failed a drugs test, Montgomery, the world’s 100 metres record holder, has been charged with serious doping offences and Jones has been investigated by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.
Once acclaimed as the new face of track and field and the rightful successor to Carl Lewis, Jones is now regarded by a number of prominent figures in the sport as an embarrassing reminder of the drug scandals which have haunted the central sport of the Olympic Games.
Their unease was encapsulated by world 200 and 400 metres record holder Michael Johnson in a British newspaper column this week.
I said back in 1999 that Marion Jones would be the perfect person to succeed me and take the sport into a new era,'' Johnson wrote. She has repeatedly disappointed us in many different ways and it can all be traced back to serial poor decision making.
Johnson now manages Jeremy Wariner, his successor as Olympic 400 champion and probably the most exciting of the new U.S. sprint generation.
Wariner, 21, shares Gatlin’s optimism about the future of track and field.
The young athletes are starting to step up now,'' he said. The young athletes are hungry.’’
Wariner has targeted Johnson’s world record of 43.18 set at the 1999 Seville world championships.
That's the goal for me this year,'' he said. It’s a great possibility.’’
An American clean sweep of the 400 metres in Helsinki followed by a world 4x400 record look good long-range bets. Otis Harris and Derrick Brew followed Wariner to the line in Athens while teenagers LaShawn Merritt and Kerron Clements have both dipped under 45 seconds in the indoor season.
Chinese Liu Xiang, another potential world record breaker, is also scheduled to compete in Osaka after clocking a year’s 110 metres hurdles best of 13.23 in Zhongshan last month. Liu equalled Briton Colin Jackson’s world record of 12.91 seconds in the Athens final.
The two outstanding women’s athletes of the 2004 season have already confirmed their form in the northern hemisphere indoor season.
Russian women’s pole vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva broke the world indoor record four times in as many meetings and the five metres barrier now looks a formality.
Right now the bar is my only rival,'' she said after elevating the mark to 4.90 at the European indoor championships in Madrid. The equally gifted Swede Carolina Kluft, who like Isinbayeva conveys an obvious delight in her athletic skills, set a national heptathlon record in Madrid. I will keep doing this until it is not fun any more and when it is not giving me anything any more,’’ she said.
Add to the mix Ethiopian Kenenisa Bekele, who overcame the unexpected death of his fiancee to win his fourth world cross country double, and the ingredients for a vintage season are in place.
By John Mehaffey