- The Washington Times - Monday, August 23, 2004

ATHENS — Maurice Greene pumped his arms, straining. Francis Obikwelu dipped his head, leaning like a man diving into a pool. Justin Gatlin simply screamed.

All three crossed the finish line in the blink of an eye — and when it was over, Gatlin emerged with the title of World’s Fastest Man, edging out Portugal’s Obikwelu and fellow American Greene in a thrilling, much-anticipated 100-meter dash final at Olympic Stadium.

“This is my dream,” said Gatlin, who ran a personal-best 9.85 seconds, 0.01 slower than the Olympic record. “This is my chance. The race was magnificent.”

Was it ever. Before a surging, rollicking crowd, Gatlin won the closest Olympic 100-meter final in more than two decades, finishing just ahead of Obikwelu (9.86) and Sydney Games champ Greene (9.87).

Elsewhere in Athens, American Deena Kastor used a late burst for a stunning bronze finish, giving the United States its first marathon medal since Joan Benoit’s gold in Los Angeles 20 years ago. In gymnastics, Terin Humphrey won silver on the uneven bars, and Gaithersburg’s Courtney Kupets won the bronze. Annia Hatch took silver on the vault. And the U.S. eight-man crew claimed gold in rowing for the first time in 40 years.

But the men’s 100 meters, in some ways, remains the marquee event of these games, and for the first time in Olympic history, five men finished under 10 seconds in the same race. American Shawn Crawford’s fourth-place time of 9.89 would have claimed gold in all but two previous Olympics.

“You know what? I thought we put on a great show,” said Greene, a former world-record holder coming off a pair of injury-racked seasons. “Justin and Francis ran a great race. It’s been a long road from where I’ve been. To come back here and compete the way I have, I’m still happy.”

Pegged as a future star since winning the 60-meter title at last year’s world indoor championships, Gatlin might have beaten Greene at the U.S. Olympic trials if not for an ill-timed lean.

In the biggest race of his nascent career, however, Gatlin was nearly perfect — starting with a burst, accelerating smoothly, finishing with his right arm thrown out in triumph.

At 22, Gatlin is the youngest Olympic 100-meter champion in 36 years. A Brooklyn native who grew up hurdling fire hydrants, he won six NCAA titles in two seasons at the University of Tennessee.

“It’s the start of things to come,” said Crawford, who trains with Gatlin in Raleigh, N.C. “On his part, that race was almost flawless, the race of his life. I’m just glad I was part of the field to help push him.”

After crossing the finish line, Gatlin dropped to his knees. He embraced Crawford, with whom he had playfully jawed over the last 10 meters of their earlier semifinal.

The two are coached by Trevor Graham, the former sprint guru of Marion Jones and world-record holder Tim Montgomery, who failed to qualify for the games and has been accused of steroid use in an ongoing investigation.

Three years ago, Gatlin tested positive for an amphetamine at the national junior championships, a drug that was in a prescription medication he had been taking for attention-deficit disorder.

The International Association of Athletics Federations, track’s governing body, granted Gatlin early reinstatement from a two-year ban in the summer of 2002.

“I am a genuine, clean champion,” Gatlin said. “I go out there and do what I have to do. All sports are going to have drug-related negativity. We want to bring positivity back to the sport.”

For one night, at least, Gatlin and the other sprinters managed to succeed. Unaffected by the drug scandals that have racked the Athens Games, the capacity crowd greeted the runners with 10 minutes of rhythmic clapping — first slow, then fast.

Crawford winked to a camera. Obikwelu gestured for more. Greene flexed, then blew a kiss to each side of the buzzing stadium.

“This is Athens,” Greene said. “The fans are great. The electricity is enormous. They were getting into it, getting us prepared to run. It was a good feeling.”

During a two-year slide marked by numerous injuries, one from a motorcycle accident, the 30-year-old Greene hoped to become the only man other than Carl Lewis to win consecutive Olympic golds in the 100. After his best race of the season, he took a lap around the track where he set a world record in 1999.

“I’m not done,” said Greene, whose modest tattoo reads “GOAT,” short for greatest of all time. “I don’t feel my time has passed. I’m not going to make it easy for [Gatlin]. I’m going to keep padding my stats. And I haven’t ran as fast as I can. So I’m going to give him something to shoot for.”

At the other end of the track, Gatlin jogged in the opposite direction, hugging and high-fiving spectators. An American flag draped across his shoulders, he looked every bit the future.

“I knew I had won when I crossed the finish line,” Gatlin said. “I was just shocked that my dream came true. All my life I’ve been watching people make history like Maurice Greene, Marion Jones. I just wanted to be one of them.”

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