Andy McGeady: Ageless Gatlin neither a mouse nor a slouch

Advances in training mean more athletes will extend peak years, like Gatlin has done

EUGENE, OR - JUNE 28: Justin Gatlin runs to victory in the Mens 200 Meter during day four of the 2015 USA Outdoor Track & Field Championships at Hayward Field on June 28, 2015 in Eugene, Oregon. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

EUGENE, OR - JUNE 28: Justin Gatlin runs to victory in the Mens 200 Meter during day four of the 2015 USA Outdoor Track & Field Championships at Hayward Field on June 28, 2015 in Eugene, Oregon. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

 

The fastest man in both 2014 and 2015 over 100m and 200m is not a mouse. Were a mouse to crouch obediently on a miniature starting block and speed off down the track finishing with a neat dip across the line, it would be somewhat unusual. What Justin Gatlin has been doing at his advanced age of 33 is, like a mouse in lycra, somewhat odd.

After running a personal best 9.74 for the 100m in Doha in May, Gatlin ran 19.57 for 200m in Oregon last Sunday to win the US trials. Both times make him the joint fifth fastest man to ever run that distance. And all at 33, an age where most sprinters are firmly on the downswing.

On the track, determining peak performance is straightforward. The stopwatch tells all. Power and explosion track events have typically featured a peak in the mid to late twenties. There currently exist two clear exceptions to this: Kim Collins, who ran a personal best 9.96 100m last summer at 38, and Gatlin.

“You can see quite clearly that, in the case of Gatlin, performance is an outlier. Then age is an outlier. And the combination of the two makes it extraordinary” said Ross Tucker, Professor of Exercise Physiology with the School of Medicine at the University of the Free State in South Africa.

Sian Allen, a performance analyst at High Performance Sport New Zealand, examined academic literature to determine the age at which particular events saw peak performance. While her research pointed to the peak of male sprinters being at around age 26, it’s not quite as simple as pointing at a chap doing something remarkable and assuming he’s cheating.

Second Captains

Gatlin

Elite athletes are inherently unusual, says Allen, existing at the extremes of the general population. Tucker agrees with that, but says that elite athletes in a particular sport “almost by definition have to have certain attributes. They are by definition incredibly tightly grouped.”

After Gatlin’s stunning 9.74 in May, Tucker wrote about the athlete’s unusual late age improvement. Roger Pielke Jr, political scientist at the University of Colorado, then charted the world’s fastest sprinters’ peak times by age. A version of that work has been reproduced here using data from the IAAF website.

Ageing curve

Epstein, one of the lead reporters in the recent investigation by ProPublica and BBC’s Panorama into the methods of Alberto Salazar, says that given Gatlin’s past drugs suspensions and choice of coaches it’s not unreasonable that people might ask questions about his currentperformances at such an age.

How long do the effects of doping last? “The durations of doping bans have nothing to do with the science of performance enhancing drugs” says Epstein. A study of mice showed that past steroid use made them more receptive to training in later life, even after the steroid use ceased. When presented with the results of that study Gatlin insisted that he is a human, not a mouse. Which is true.

But similar effects demonstrated by that study have been seen in humans; powerlifters many years removed from steroid intake whose muscles demonstrated a retention of the benefits. Epstein says he thinks it’s appropriate to examine “the lingering effect of certain drugs” while expecting more athletes in explosion sports to extend their peaks into late 20s and early 30s because of advances in training.

Perhaps Gatlin’s “training age” is actually still around 29, given he served a four-year suspension. But the point of interest here isn’t that he’s extended his peak, it’s that the peak is in the wrong place. He’s better now than he’s ever been, especially in the 200m.

There is another factor that one cannot completely rule out: is this maybe a super-motivated athlete? The assumption can be that an athlete’s declining performance over time is purely physiological.

“But by the time an athlete’s won an Olympic title . . . training becomes quite arduous for what become diminishing returns. Why keep going?” asked Tucker. Gatlin had Olympic medals wiped away and lost four years of his career. Rightly or wrongly, it’s at least possible that he might be the most motivated sprinter out there. Just don’t call him a mouse.

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