Much has been written about drugs in athletics over the past few months. Alberto Salazar, Galan Rupp, Alan Wells and the entire Russian national team have been implicated in alleged doping scandals.
Although Salazar is taking the majority of the column inches at the moment, there is one figure who stands out above them all in this controversy: Justin Gatlin. The names previously mentioned are yet to be proved guilty of the accusations against them, but Gatlin has served two doping bans. He is a drugs cheat.
This past weekend he ran the fifth fastest 200m of all times... at the age of 33. For a man who has previously competed under the influence of performance enhancers, to be setting personal bests, of that magnitude, clean... I can understand why some would cast doubt over Gatlin's training methods.
But for now, I'd like to give him the benefit of the doubt and look at him as an athlete, competing at the highest level. Put to one side his former indiscretions, because, however difficult that is to do (and I do find it difficult), when I accomplish it, I get very excited indeed.
Usain Bolt has dominated the sprints since 2008. He has transcended the sport and become a global icon. There is only one blip on his record, the 2011 World Championships 100m title. Yohan Blake crossed the line first on that occasion... but only due to Bolt's own error in committing a false start. Bolt's performances that season, along with his runs in the 200m and 4x100m at the Championships, left no one in doubt as to who would have won the 100m race had Bolt not got a little over excited. Blake may be the champion in the history books, but we all know who the fastest man in the world that year was.
While Bolt's dominance over the sprints left us dumbstruck initially, none of us quite able to grasp how a human being could run so fast, in recent years that initial excitement has diminished somewhat. If Bolt runs, Bolt wins. Since 2008 he has not been to a major championship and looked anything other than superhuman compared to his rivals. In a pre-Bolt era, there was suspense at the start of a 100m race, and at the finish line the winners were separated by hundredths of a second... not metres. In Bolt's earlier years, 2008-2012, we all knew that he would cross the line first , but our eyes were watching the clock as much as they were him. Could he break his already unbelievable world records? There was always a chance that it could happen. He hasn't been in that type of form for several years.
But this year, he might have to be.
Gatlin is having the season of his life. He's on a 20 race unbeaten streak, taking chunks out of his personal best with regularly and looking like the kind of athlete who could produce something pretty special when he peaks for the World Championships at the end of August. He recently proclaimed he was gunning to break the 100m world record by the end of the summer, and that's a statement he may well be able to back up. Bolt on the other hand is having a lack-lustre season. He has yet to break 10 seconds in the 100m or 20 seconds in the 200m. He recently pulled out of the Jamaican National Championships and two Diamond League meets sighting a pelvic injury. This is not the sort of preparation he would want when he is about to face his toughest battle.
Anyone who has followed Bolt's career will know not to worry just yet. He is a championship performer and has shown a few bright sparks this year (including running the fastest ever 4x100m relay split in history earlier this year in the Bahamas) but, with Gatlin also being a seasoned campaigner at championship level, the prospect of these two meeting in anger is nothing short of mouth-watering.
Bolt will need to be nothing short of his best to win, a prospect he has never been faced with before. We could very well see some world records broken in Beijing, as well as returning to the classic era when a victory was taken by a hundredth of a second, not a metre. But who will be the one crossing that lines first. For once, that is very much open to debate.
We could be about to witness a golden era of sprinting. Now let's not allow the minor detail of doping bans ruin things, shall we?