In darkness outside Helsinki Olympic Stadium on Sunday night, Justin Gatlin was handed a sheet of paper and a marking pen and asked for his autograph. He raised his left leg, spread the paper across his thigh, scrawled his name and then paused before adding, in bold black letters, WORLD CHAMPION. Gatlin held the paper at arm's length as if admiring a piece of art. "World champion," he said to the fan. "There you go."
Some sprinters are defined by the times they run, others by a truer measure--the championships they win. On a cool, nearly windless evening at the northern end of Europe, Gatlin, who last summer beat the fastest 100-meter field in history to earn the Olympic gold medal in Athens, won the 100 at the 10th Track and Field World Outdoor Championships. His time of 9.88 seconds was sweet but less impressive than his absurd margin of victory--.17 of a second, the widest in the history of the worlds--over Michael Frater of Jamaica.
One night later U.S. teammate Lauryn Williams, the 21-year-old 100-meter silver medalist from Athens, proved as tough under pressure as Gatlin. After a summer in which she had seldom found the form that made her an NCAA champion at Miami and carried her through Athens, Williams stunned the Helsinki 100 field. "Silver feels good, but gold feels great," said the always effervescent Williams. She won in 10.93 (.02 off her personal best), edging favorites Veronica Campbell of Jamaica (silver), Christine Arron of France (bronze) and Chandra Sturrup of the Bahamas (bronze) while running in a steady rain. "We get hurricane rain in Miami," said Williams afterward.
Gatlin blew away his rivals with the force of a hurricane. He started slowly, patiently rose from his low, driving position and then screamed--"Yeah!"--as he passed the entire field in 10 massive strides bookending the 50-meter mark. "I knew it was over," he said later.
Having watched the race from a seat behind the starting line, Gatlin's main rival, world-record holder Asafa Powell of Jamaica, who was out with a groin injury, said simply, "He won by so much because he's much faster than those guys." Before the week is over Gatlin will attempt to add golds in the 200 meters and the 4√ó100 relay, which would complete a triple accomplished at the worlds only by Maurice Greene in 1999.
Gatlin's Olympic victory was a career-altering experience that threw a bull's-eye across his back. "Basically you could say, in one night I got promoted," says the 23-year-old. His Athens win and the accompanying bonus payments from sponsors afforded Gatlin some luxury. He bought a three-bedroom home near his training base in Raleigh and a $90,000 Porsche 911, on which he affixed JGAT2 license plates to go with the JGAT plates on his Cadillac Escalade truck.
By contrast, the weekend's other U.S. star, shot-putter Adam Nelson, was a financial hardship case. Even after winning a silver medal in Athens, Nelson was unable to attract sponsors. So he put his services up for auction on eBay, getting $12,000 to endorse Rex--The Talking Bottle for MedivoxRX. The 30-year-old Nelson had talked emotionally with his wife, Laci, about retirement. Last Saturday, while Adam competed in Helsinki, Laci was back in Georgia, driving from Atlanta to their home in Athens, when she received a text message informing her that Adam had taken the lead in a competition he would eventually win with a heave of 71' 3 1/2". Laci burst into tears while trying to navigate her 2000 Nissan Pathfinder. "Driving and crying and reading text," she said. "I just couldn't stop crying."
Though more flush than Nelson, Gatlin has had his struggles too. His 2005 training was stunted in the spring when coach Trevor Graham's Sprint Capitol group, including Olympic 200-meter gold medalist Shawn Crawford, was barred from using the track at North Carolina State because of a bureaucratic snafu. For 10 weeks Sprint Capitol worked out on a grass field in a public park. "Last year Shawn and I were running world-record pace every day in practice," Gatlin says. "This year it's been tougher." Even in Helsinki, Gatlin didn't get his custom-made spikes from Nike until the day of the semifinals and final, and at that, they were in the wrong colors, silver and black instead of red, white and blue.
Nor did he get unqualified respect from Powell, who said that if he had been able to run, he would have beaten Gatlin. For his part Gatlin smacked back at Powell's dearth of major titles. Their talk is fertilizer for a great rivalry on another day. For now, there is only one king.