Sacramento – The next generation of American sprinting talent will be on display on Thursday when the US Track and Field Championships get under way in Sacramento with places at this year’s World Championships up for grabs.
With Usain Bolt preparing to hang up his spikes later this year, the athletics world will get a glimpse of the sprinters likely to be in the frame to inherit the Jamaican star’s throne when he departs the sport.
For the best part of a decade, drug-tainted veteran Justin Gatlin has been the dominant force in American sprinting over 100m and 200m, while remaining an emphatic second best against Bolt in major championships.
Gatlin finished runner-up to the Jamaican twice in the 100m at the last two world championships in 2013 and 2015, and once again at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro last August.
But the grizzled 35-year-old will be back at Sacramento’s Hornet Stadium this week hoping to book his place on the US team for the World Championships at London in August – and possibly another showdown with Bolt.
However, Gatlin might well find himself in a dogfight just to qualify for London judging by his results this season.
Gatlin, who has a 100m personal best of 9.74seconds set in 2015, has not come close to that kind of time this year, only once ducking below 10 seconds.
He clocked a disappointing fifth place at the Prefontaine Classic Diamond League meeting a month ago in Eugene, Oregon.
More significantly, while Gatlin has struggled to rediscover his best form, American sprinting has been crackling with excitement over the displays of collegiate star Christian Coleman.
The 21-year-old University of Tennessee prodigy sent shockwaves rippling throughout the athletics world earlier this month when he scorched to a world-leading fastest time of the season, 9.82.
The fact that Coleman eased up as he crossed the line in the US college championships semi-final suggests he has the potential to go faster.
Conditions in Sacramento this week are likely to suit fast times, with the mercury forecast to reach 105 degrees Fahrenheit (41 degrees Celsius).
Coleman was a team-mate of Gatlin on the US squad in Rio last season, an alternate in the 4x100m relay squad. The youngster revealed that Gatlin had become a mentor to him.
“He has become a friend of mine, a mentor,” Coleman said. “He was once in the same position as me. He has talked to me about how to handle myself, what to do with my career.”
Gatlin, meanwhile, has tracked the progress of his young rival with admiration, telling US media he was wowed by Coleman’s world-leading 100m display.
“Watching him gave me goose bumps,” Gatlin said. “You’re able to watch a star being born.
“I’m just going to get my popcorn ready, sit back and enjoy the show,” added Gatlin, who must secure a top-three finish in Friday’s 100m final to qualify for London.
While Coleman looks set to eclipse Gatlin in the 100m, a new crop of talent is also expected to shine in the men’s 200m and 400m.
While Coleman will race in the 200m – he has the second-fastest time in the world this year at 19.85 – he will be joined by teenager Noah Lyles, who ran an impressive 19.90 in Shanghai in May.
In the 400, meanwhile, Fred Kerley is the man to beat. Kerley, 22, has posted the three fastest times in the world this year, including a startling 43.7 in a regional meeting in May, the seventh fastest time in history.
Elsewhere at this weekend’s meeting, which runs from Thursday to Sunday, a galaxy of 2016 Olympic stars will be in action aiming to lock down their World Championship berths, including Rio 1 500m gold medalist Matthew Centrowitz and 400m hurdles champion Dalilah Muhammad.