For many track observers, the question entering 2012 wasn't which American would be capable of challenging the Jamaican juggernaut in the 100-meter dash ... it's whether any American could.
After whispers in the affirmative earlier in the season, the reformed Justin Gatlin and the rehabbed Tyson Gay answered it for good in Sunday's 100 meter finals at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials: yes. Yes, yes, yes:
Both Gatlin and Gay ran under the 9.9 mark to finish 1-2 in the finals and advance to each's second career Olympics. Gatlin's 9.80 was a personal best in a professional career spanning nearly a decade (not counting a mark rescinded following his 2006 positive doping test); Gay's 9.86 was equally impressive considering that his first race since returning from a year-long absence due to hip surgery was only 15 days ago.
But it's unlikely the race meant as much to Gay as it did to Gatlin, who spent four long years in exile from the sport thanks to his doping ban. His 2011 comeback didn't always go swimmingly, either, as he failed to make the finals at the 2011 World Championships. After Sunday, though, Gatlin seems poised to return to the Olympic medal stand for the first time since claiming gold in Athens in 2004.
"Almost speechless," Gatlin told the Register-Guard afterwards. "Everything just feels so surreal."
"I'm just happy to get out there and do what I had to do," he told NBC.
Then again, it's hard to imagine how much Sunday's race would have meant for Gay as well. Still the American record-holder in the 100 and the second-fastest man in history thanks to his 9.69 from 2009, Gay nonetheless came back from Beijing empty-handed thanks to a hamstring injury and relay mishap. Any Olympic medal in London will be his first.
"I just felt confident," Gay told NBC, thanking his coaches and trainers (and daughter) for helping him through his surgery rehab. "Everyone gave me that confidence."
Skeptics will point out that the race was run with a strong -- but legal -- wind behind their backs, and that if Gatlin and Gay appear to be peaking at the right time, Usain Bolt, Asafa Powell, and Yohan Blake will no doubt show up to London in equally good condition. Aside from Gatlin's 9.80 Sunday, five of the top six times turned in this year still belong to the Jamaican trio, meaning a sweep still isn't out of the question.
But given how far both Gatlin and Gay had to come to put up times like the ones they showed Sunday, how much potential each has shown when healthy and in top form, how deep their competitive fire burns and how unafraid either will be of the Jamaicans -- Gatlin defeated Powell head-to-head earlier this year -- we'd argue that sweep suddenly looks downright unlikely. Gatlin and Gay have fired their warning shot.
Now we just have to let the Games begin.
Video HT: SBNation.