ATHENS, Greece - Justin Gatlin was overshadowed all weekend by a flamboyant training partner and an illustrious teammate. So he sped past both of them, outrunning the fastest Olympic field ever to snatch the 100-meter gold medal.
Gatlin ran the race of his life Sunday to become the youngest champion in 36 years, barely holding off Portugal’s Francis Obikwelu and defending gold medalist Maurice Greene to win in 9.85 seconds.
‘‘It’s a new era for young athletes all over the world,’’ said Gatlin, who at 22 is leading the changing of the guard in track and field. ‘‘Young guys, young women, all of us are taking over. Watch out, we’re coming.’’
Obikwelu finished in 9.86 for the silver medal. Greene, trying to become the first man since Carl Lewis in 1984 and ’88 to win back-to-back Olympic 100s, took bronze in 9.87.
A third American, Shawn Crawford, was fourth in 9.89. Five runners broke the 10-second mark, and another — world champion Kim Collins — finished in exactly 10 seconds. It was the first time in Olympic history that five men broke 10 seconds in a race. Four did it at the 1996 Atlanta Games.
It also was the closest finish in an Olympic 100 final since the 1980 Moscow Games, when Allan Wells of Britain held off Silvio Leonard of Cuba as the two were timed in 10.25.
Gatlin’s previous personal best was 9.92. He finished the race with his mouth wide open, then dropped to his knees and clasped his hands in prayer. Then he jumped into the stands.
‘‘The race was magnificent. The only way I knew the race was great is because I watched it on TV,’’ Gatlin said. ‘‘I couldn’t even feel the race. I felt that I was 100 miles in front of everybody. It was so close, but that’s what I felt.’’
He is the youngest winner since Jim Hines at the 1968 Mexico City Games. Gatlin turned 22 on February 10; Hines had just turned 22 when he won.
Gatlin won six NCAA titles in his two seasons at Tennessee, then won the 60-meter title at the world indoor championships last year. But the Athens spotlight had been focused on the swaggering Greene, who was trying to live up to the Greatest Of All Time acronym tattooed on his arm, and Crawford, who ran the first round with a baseball cap turned backward, pretended to spike a football after the second round and highstepped the last 20 meters of his semifinal while jawing at Gatlin.
As Greene wore shoes painted like the American flag and Crawford wore one black spike and one white, Gatlin’s feet didn’t get a second glance — even though they proved fastest of all.
Crawford gave Gatlin a huge hug after his victory. Both are trained by Trevor Graham, the former mentor of Marion Jones and Tim Montgomery — who holds the 100 world record of 9.78, but did not qualify for the Olympics and has been charged with steroid use.
Earlier Sunday night, Gail Devers’ heartbreak in the Olympic 100-meter hurdles continued as she was felled by injury just steps into her first heat.
Devers, 37, who has three world championships in the event and the U.S. record of 12.37 seconds, pulled up short and screamed as she slid under the first hurdle. She sat on the track for about two minutes, rubbing her left leg and grimacing.
Devers hurt her leg in practice a week ago and wore a heavy bandage during three rounds of the 100 before being eliminated in the semifinals Saturday.
Her failure Sunday may lead to second guessing about Devers’ decision to run in the 100 instead of giving the spot to defending Olympic champion Marion Jones. Devers took the third U.S. spot when Torri Edwards was suspended for two years for accidentally ingesting a banned stimulant.
Devers has three Olympic medals in the 100, but she slammed into the last hurdle while leading the 1992 Olympic final and crawled to the finish line in fifth place. In 1996, she missed a medal by a hundredth of a second. In 2000, she injured her hamstring in the semifinal and pulled up after five hurdles.
Two Swedish men won gold medals in field events. Stefan Holm won the high jump — American Matt Hemingway got silver — and Christian Olsson was the winner in the triple jump.