EUGENE, Ore. -- They are two of the fastest men in the history of American track and field, yet not long ago, they seemed to be unlikely Olympians, two among many runners desperate to wear the uniform of the Games, but no closer than a dream.
There was Justin Gatlin, once the billboard face of his sport and then its disgraced outcast, four years away from the game while serving a suspension for steroid use.
There was Tyson Gay, who five years ago smoked Usain Bolt to win a world title but whose career seemed endangered by injuries.
Take them back just a few weeks ago. Gatlin was training on a track in central Florida. It was in the summer of 2006, not long after he equaled Asafa Powell's pre-Bolt world record in the 100 meters with a time of 9.77 seconds, that Gatlin was busted for steroids (for a transgression that he still feels was sabotage) and hit with a four-year suspension. But he came back, all the way to finish second in the U.S. nationals last summer. But he had run only 9.95 seconds, which might not have been good enough to make the Olympic team and certainly was nothing like what he had once been. He had turned 30 years old in February.
Gay had been training on that same track in Florida with his longtime coach, Lance Braumann, until he made his customary move to Texas in March to work with start specialist Jon Drummond. Gay had won the 100 meters and 200 meters at worlds in 2007 and run an American record of 9.69 seconds that was barely noticed because Bolt had already run a ridiculous 9.58. But Gay had missed most of the 2011 season with a torn labrum in his hip and undergone surgery in July of that year. Come April, he was still in pain.
"I was going through a lot of things, mentally,'' Gay said. "I had to try to block out a lot of negative thoughts about my hip.''
Asked if he would have envisioned making the Olympic team at that point, he said, "It would have been tough.''
So it was a moment flush with both the hazily familiar and the unexpected, blended together, when Gatlin crossed the line first and Gay second behind him Sunday in the finals of the 100 meters on day three of the U.S. Olympic trials in front of another record (and typically adoring) crowd at Hayward Field. Gatlin won the race is 9.80 seconds, the third-fastest time in the world in 2012 (Bolt has run 9.76 and 9.79) and Gay was behind him in 9.86, his best time since a suspect 9.79 in Florida last spring.
(Ryan Bailey was a surprise third in the race, a bittersweet moment enabled in part by an injury to Bailey's training partner, Walter Dix, who finished last in the final and hopes to recover for the 200 meters. Both are trained by John Smith.)
The finish announced that both Gatlin and Gay are back and nearly whole. "Surreal, surreal, surreal,'' said Gatlin, in a private interview with SI.com after his race. "I don't even have the time to feel emotional about it.''
Gay, who in a pre-race interview with a small group of reporters, talked about lingering pain in his hip and a scaled-back passion that could be satisfied by simply making the team, said, "I definitely feel a sense of relief. It's over with. Now I can go back to the weight room and train a little bit longer. Get my strength back.''
(Gay has run against -- and beaten -- the best sprinters of his generation, yet he said, "When I was in the blocks, I was shaking a little bit. My feet weren't completely on the pads.'' Asked how long it's been since he felt so nervous, he said, "It's been a while. It was nerves, man, jitters.'')
Gatlin had dominated the early rounds in Eugene and did likewise in the final, controlling the race from start to finish. His time puts him squarely in the medal mix in London, in position to break up a Jamaican sweep. "Running that race, it wasn't even my fastest,'' Gatlin said. "The last 20 meters, I just held my form and ran to the line.''
His name summons up strong emotions in the track and field community, where a vocal populace feels that even a four-year ban was not enough. I addressed this issue in a column from Eugene a year ago. This is the entire column, and this was my last line: His punishment was harsh and real, much worse than home run kings. It's time to commute the sentence. My thinking has not changed. Gatlin was punished hugely, and unless he's nailed again, that's over.
Veteran U.S. sprinter Doc Patton, who finished fifth in Sunday's final, said, "The man served his time and came back with reckless abandonment. He showed his class. Now he's showing that U.S. sprinting is a force to be reckoned with.''
Gatlin struggled to find words to describe what's happened. "I'm in uncharted territory, with everyone else who's trying to explain it,'' Gatlin said. "I'm just trying to go with the flow.''
His past -- and now present -- agent, former great U.S. hurdler Renaldo Nehemiah, who was not allowed to represent Gatlin during his ban but never stopped supporting him informally, said, "Think back to 2005 and 2006. Justin was always beating Tyson Gay. Maybe he would have run 9.69, but he lost those years. Now he's so hungry, and I want to be careful how I say this, but he's running angry.''
He's also running like the old Gatlin, and this is something that even Gatlin himself didn't feel until very recently.
"Maybe four weeks ago,'' he said. "I was doing some 80s and 70s with my coach (three-time U.S. Olympian Dennis Mitchell, who, alas, served a doping ban himself, providing more fuel for critics),'' Gatlin said. "The times I was running equated to 9.7s and 9.6s for 100 meters.''
NBC analyst and multiple Olympic sprint medalist Ato Boldon has watched Gatlin closely in his comeback. "I've seen technical changes,'' Boldon said. After Sunday's final, Gatlin explained one of them, made only in the last month. "My arm swing,'' he said. "I've been reconfiguring myself.'' (He formerly ran with a high, chopping arm action, typical of sprinters taught by the disgraced Trevor Graham, and by John Smith, whose style Graham emulated. Now Gatlin keeps his arms more compact, more like Mitchell did).
There is another side to Gatlin's redemption that sits alongside merely building speed. For more than 18 months after his reinstatement in the summer of 2010, he could not secure a shoe/apparel sponsor. He had formerly run for Nike, but they apparently feared association with his doping ban (or, possibly, didn't think he was running fast enough to move product).
So at the end of 2011, Gatlin signed a deal with a Chinese company named Xtep. He ran at trials in adidas spikes (which he paid his own money for), but Nehemiah said Xtep is developing a spike for Gatlin. Also, Nehemiah said Nike came forward in the spring, "but it was too little, too late.''
Also this: "Now that he's run 9.80, a lot of people would be interested.'' The Xtep deal is for five years.
For two summers, many meets refused to invite Gatlin to run. That, too, is changing. "Most of the Diamond Leagues will sign Justin now,'' Nehemiah said. "Not Zurich, but Lausanne, Paris, Brussels.''
And Gatlin insists that he is not finished. There are Olympic Games to run and Jamaican global superstars to challenge. "I don't think it's going to take just speed and power,'' said Gatlin. "It's going to take someone to say, 'These times are not my boundary. I can run faster.'''
Gay has already done that. But as late as that March period when he moved from Florida to Texas, he was barely training and had not approached world-class-level sprinting. "I know I'm the only one who knows what I've been through,'' he said. "Starting my training in March.'' (Usually top sprinters begin their summer training in the previous fall). "It feels good, knowing what I've been able to accomplish.''
In that late afternoon light at Hayward Field, sunny on this day and not rainy, he was asked about Gatlin. "I guess that's just about the biggest comeback,'' he said. But really, on this day, it was just a tie for that distinction.
Long after the finish of the men's 100 meters on Sunday afternoon, USATF at last rendered its decision on the dead heat for third place in Saturday's women's 100-meter final between two-time Olympic 200-meter silver medalist Allyson Felix and her training partner, 22-year-old Jeneba Tarmoh.
In a long news release that can be accessed here, the organization outlined newly formed methods for breaking a third-place tie at trials. It remains unconscionable that no procedure was in place previously, and that nearly 24 hours passed between the dead heat and the announcement. But, moving on:
The new procedures mandate that tied athletes must independently choose either a) a coin flip or b) a runoff or decline to choose either one. If either one chooses a runoff, there will be a runoff. If both refuse to choose a method, there will be a coin flip. Another option is that one of the athletes could decline his or her position.
There is no deadline for the decision, but the U.S. team must be chosen by the end of competition Sunday. Bobby Kersee, who coaches both athletes, has expressed a strong preference to let Felix and Tarmoh run the 200 meters before making a decision. The 200 meters begins with qualifying on Thursday and concludes on Saturday evening.
There are many possibilities, but two are prominent: 1) There is, indeed, a 100-meter runoff race next Sunday at Hayward Field, on the last day of the trials. Or 2) Felix wins, or runs fast, in the 200 meters and declines her position, if Tarmoh doesn't make the team in the 200 meters. This latter decision is hardly easy for Felix; while she is a long shot to medal in the 100 meters, that event sets her up well for the 200.
In any case, a decision before late in the week seems highly unlikely.
-Tim Layden - Inside Track and Field