Usain Bolt watched Justin Gatlin dominate the sprints for nearly two years going into the World Championships, the two Olympic 100m champions notably never racing against each other in that span.
In their first race together since Gatlin’s last defeat, the American led halfway through the Worlds 100m final in Beijing on Sunday.
Bolt gritted his teeth for his last few strides. Gatlin, two lanes to his right, stumbled slightly. His arms flailed. Bolt noticed. When they both leaned into the finish line, Bolt had regained (or perhaps retained) his champion status, with his slowest winning time in an Olympic or Worlds 100m final and by his smallest margin — .01.
“I could tell [Gatlin] kind of fell apart the last part of the race,” Bolt said with a chuckle on BBC Radio.
In what could be called an upset, Bolt stole the World title from Gatlin — 9.79 seconds to 9.80. It was Bolt’s fastest time since Aug. 11, 2013. Gatlin ran faster than 9.79 in the semifinals two hours earlier, against a field that did not include Bolt.
Gatlin, the fastest man in the world in 2014 and 2015, lost for the first time since Sept. 6, 2013.
“It’s been rough coming back from injury, watching Justin Gatlin dominate throughout the season,” Bolt, who had March 2014 foot surgery and saw a doctor in Munich for a joint problem earlier this summer, said after his Sunday win on Eurosport. “I’m just happy to be back, and I’m happy I got it done.”
NCAA sprinters Trayvon Bromell (U.S.) and Andre De Grasse (Canada) shared bronze at 9.92 (full results here).
Watch the race on NBC and NBC Sports Live Extra‘s World Championships coverage Sunday from 1-2:30 p.m. ET.
“Last five meters I kind of stumbled a little bit,” Gatlin said on Eurosport. “I got nipped at the line.”
Gatlin undressing in the final stretch was surprising given an unflappable form developed over his winning streak. Gatlin, the 2004 Olympic 100m champion five years removed from a four-year doping ban, was nicknamed “Pork Chop” by training partners in his return to the sport in 2010, when he was overweight and known to throw up at practices.
He failed to make the 2011 Worlds final, finished third to Bolt at the 2012 Olympics and second to Bolt at the 2013 Worlds. He was the world’s fastest man each of the last two years, but Gatlin and Bolt never raced against each other in that span. Very notable.
Gatlin’s mistake Sunday was a “Bolt-forced error,” retired Olympic 200m and 400m champion Michael Johnson said on the BBC. Gatlin hadn’t been tested like that in a race, or even ran on such a big stage, since 2013, the last time he and Bolt went head to head.
“It wasn’t a stumble that was caused by anything other than Usain Bolt, because he saw Bolt coming,” Johnson said on the BBC. “[Gatlin] tried to get that finish line to come to him, because he knows that. You’re going to feel Bolt over there. He’s an imposing figure.”
Bolt hasn’t lost since June 6, 2013, which was his only defeat at the hands of Gatlin. Bolt is in the midst of his longest winning streak (by days) of his career.
Bolt won his third World 100m title to go along with his two Olympic titles in the event. Bolt and Gatlin could go head to head again in the 200m final Thursday in Beijing.
Before Sunday’s final, Gatlin had run 9.80 or faster seven times since the start of 2014, winning more than 20 straight races. No other man in the world had run 9.80 or faster once in that span, including Bolt, whose fastest time was 9.87.
Bolt stressed coming into this meet that he “transforms” for global championships and marked his 29th birthday Friday by being dusted with flour by friends at his hotel.
Bolt said Thursday of Gatlin’s undefeated streak, “I wasn’t there competing against him, but now I’m here.”
On Sunday, Bolt’s victory lap celebration included bicep flexing, enjoying his signature “To Di World” pose while wearing a Jamaican flag like a scarf and pointing to a large yellow fan banner that read “BOLT NO. 1.”
Gatlin, running his fastest times this year at age 33, could be seen smiling shortly after the race and then being embraced by an older female spectator, both speaking into each other’s ears.
In the earlier semifinals Sunday, Bolt put a scare into the Bird’s Nest when he stumbled shortly after his start due to dragging his left foot along the track out of the blocks. He came back to win that race in 9.96 seconds. Gatlin clocked 9.77 in his semifinal with a more relaxed slowdown across the finish.
Bolt said his coach told him after the semifinal that he was “thinking too much.”
“I told myself, that’s right,” Bolt said on Eurosport after running his slowest 100m final time at an Olympics or World Championships. “I’ve been here so many times. I know what it takes to be a winner.”
Earlier Sunday night, Great Britain’s Jessica Ennis-Hill won the heptathlon, competing in her first global championship since winning the 2012 Olympics and giving birth to baby boy Reggie on July 17, 2014.
“It was a massive surprise to even be here to be honest,” Ennis-Hill, who didn’t decide if she felt healthy enough to compete at Worlds until late July, said on the BBC. “To be here and finish on top, I’m really, I’m at a loss for words. … If I come away with a bronze medal, I would have been so, so happy. So to have won the gold is even better.”
Ennis-Hill, who scored 6,955 points for gold in 2012, scored 6,669 in Beijing and beat Canadian Brianne Theisen-Eaton by 115 points.
Ennis-Hill’s countrywoman and medal favorite Katarina Johnson-Thompson fell out of the picture when she fouled on all three of her long jumps earlier Sunday.
Shot putter Joe Kovacs became the first U.S. gold medalist of the meet, throwing 21.93 meters to beat German two-time defending World champion David Storl (21.74 meters) and Jamaican O’Dayne Richards (21.69 meters).
In the women’s 100m heats, Jamaican defending champion Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and American Tori Bowie, the fastest woman in the world in 2014, both ran 10.88, the fastest time ever in Worlds heats. They’ll go in the semifinals and, if they advance, the eight-woman final, both Monday.
Olympic champion and world-record holder David Rudisha of Kenya advanced to Tuesday’s 800m final. His two biggest rivals, defending World champion Mohammed Aman of Ethiopia and Botswana’s Nijel Amos, the Olympic silver medalist and fastest man in 2014, surprisingly failed to make the eight-man final.
The men’s 400m hurdles final Tuesday will include none of Bershawn Jackson, Johnny Dutch and Jehue Gordon, who were eliminated in either the first round or the semifinals. Gordon, of Trinidad and Tobago, was the defending World champion. Jackson and Dutch, both Americans, had combined to run the six fastest times in the world this year going into Worlds.
In their absence, U.S. Olympic and World silver medalist Michael Tinsley could be in line for his first global championship gold medal in Tuesday’s final.
All medal contenders in the women’s 1500m advanced to Tuesday’s final, including Ethiopian world record holder Genzebe Dibaba, American record holder Shannon Rowbury and 2011 World champion Jenny Simpson.
In the men’s 400m heats, American defending champion LaShawn Merritt and Grenada Olympic champion Kirani James advanced to Monday’s semifinals.
In the women’s 400m hurdles heats, Czech defending World champion Zuzana Hejnova and the fastest woman this year, U.S. NCAA champion Shamier Little, advanced to Monday’s semifinals.