Athens 100m Olympic champ Justin Gatlin out-leaned world record holder Usain Bolt at the tape Thursday at the Diamond League meet in Rome to beat the Beijing and London gold medalist for the first time in their storied careers.
“Bolt is a great competitor and a great champion,” Gatlin told reporters. “To come out here and have a victory, it just stamps that I’m having a good season… You can never count out Usain.”
Gatlin was clocked at 9.94 seconds – a step slower than the 9.91 he posted in Beijing last month – while Bolt came in right behind him in 9.95, and said, smiling, that he was just happy to finish under 10-seconds for the first time this season. Jimmy Vicaut of France finished third in 10.02.
Bolt, who ran 9.76 in Rome last season, actually got off to a rare good start Thursday – the fastest in the field – which usually spells doom for his competitors. But the 31-year-old Gatlin was able to quickly chase him down, take a lead by the 50-meter mark, and somehow hold off the reigning Olympic champ.
“I got the perfect start. What I wanted,” Bolt told reporters. “About five steps in, I stumbled a little bit.”
Bolt then joked that he had a little bit more strength work to do after he was bothered by a mild hamstring strain earlier this season that forced him out of the Kingston Invitational. American Tyson Gay replaced him there, and ran a 2013 world’s best 9.86. Bolt’s best before Thursday was just 10.09, when he barely beat young training partner Kemar Bailey-Cole at the Cayman Invitational.
“For me, it’s just going through the season and putting things together for the World Championships,” Bolt added. “The season is still very early. I am not surprised.”
Meanwhile, Gatlin is undefeated in five races this season, and has run under 10-seconds four times if you count the wind-aided 9.88 he ran at the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene last weekend.
“I have a different feel going into the season than I did last year…” Gatlin told the BBC earlier this week. “I want to go into this season with that same attitude but more calm, more collected. I want to be able to know who my opponents are and what they do and what they bring to the table.”