Justin Gatlin of the US greets Usain Bolt of Jamaica after the World Athletics Championships 100m final. REUTERS
Justin Gatlin of the US greets Usain Bolt of Jamaica after the World Athletics Championships 100m final. REUTERS

Reigning 100m world champion Justin Gatlin has hailed his long-time rival and retired sprint legend Usain Bolt as the greatest Olympian of all time.

Gatlin‚ in SA for a 150m race in Pretoria, said competing against Bolt turned him into a better athlete and human being.

"Of course he is the best track and field Olympian of all time because the guy rises to the occasion when it’s time‚" the US sprinter said.

"You see him run in smaller meets and he does about 10 to 15 seconds and when it’s time to compete on the big stage‚ he understands that he has a different kind of pressure than everybody else.

"He was usually the defending champion and that’s a lot of pressure and he never relaxed‚" Gatlin said‚ also hinting that he may stick around for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo at the age of 40.

"Racing against Usain has made me become a better athlete and better human being.

"I say that because when you are defeated and feel like you were at your best, there are only two ways you can react — either you will feel that you have let yourself down or you take that as a lesson and try to come back stronger," he said.

"He [Bolt] took track and field to another level. When you race against him you come across situations that make you feel like you are the man but you get defeated by a better man.

"So‚ the only thing is how can I beat this guy. Along the way I just had to become confident and take my losses throughout my career against him," he said.

Gatlin‚ who has won only one Olympic gold, in Athens 13 years ago‚ finally managed to beat Bolt when it mattered most, in the 2017 World Championships in London, to spoil the Jamaican’s farewell party.

Gatlin‚ who was banned for doping on two previous occasions in 2001 and 2006‚ is often jeered by crowds at meetings around the world and he said the younger generation must learn from his mistakes. "I am human and that kind of stuff does affect me, but as an athlete I focus on my job and I do what I need to do. That is a lesson that must be learnt by the younger generation," he said.

The sprinter recounted the story of the 2015 IAAF World Championships in Beijing, where Bolt beat him in the 100m final, leaving him devastated and in tears.

"I had a great season in 2015 and losing in a hundredth of a second was difficult.

"Getting back in the car and back to the hotel‚ I cried because I knew that I let myself down because I did not stick to my race patterns."

Gatlin said he had been swept along by the hype of the event instead of focusing clearly on the job at hand and delivering the goods.