EUGENE, Ore. -- So, America, in order to beat Usain Bolt, will you embrace a former gold medalist who was busted for doping?
That's the issue after Justin Gatlin, who was the world's fastest man before Bolt, continued his comeback by running a personal best 9.8 to win the men's 100 meters Sunday at the U.S. Olympic track and field trials. After winning gold in the 100 in Athens eight years ago and then serving a four-year ban from the sport due to a positive test for performance-enhancing drugs, Gatlin is returning to the Olympics at the age of 30.
"I've been tested multiple times since I've been back. I was tested when I was away for four years. I was still getting tested," Gatlin said after receiving the inevitable question about performance-enhancing drugs. "To me, it's not about judging myself or what I've been through. Right now, I'm focused on what is in front of me. So far, I've been a clean athlete, a positive athlete, and I will continue to do that, and that's my goal -- to go out and run and just be free."
Gatlin narrowly beat Tyson Gay, who ran a 9.86, and Ryan Bailey, who earned the third qualifying spot. The American record holder in the 100 [9.69] and one of two sprinters to beat Bolt since the 2008 Olympics, Gay is coming back from hip surgery last year. "I couldn't even jog without pain until March," he said.
So his time Sunday, along with Gatlin's, provide ample hope that if the U.S. doesn't beat Bolt in London, at least it won't get swept by the Jamaicans.
"I don't think I would come back to a sport where I would be OK getting second or third," Gatlin said when asked about beating Bolt. "I train very hard and all these guys up here train very hard as well, six days a week, six hours a day. We all have our eye on the prize. We want to get that gold. So if it's going to be three Jamaicans in our way or the whole world in our way, that's what it's going to take to get around that and get that gold medal."
Since winning the gold medal at the 2004 Olympics, Gatlin's career path has involved everything but an appearance on "Dancing with the Stars."
After testing positive for PEDs in 2006, Gatlin received an eight-year ban from the sport but was eventually reduced to four. He attempted to switch careers to football, unsuccessfully trying out as a wide receiver for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He returned to track in 2010, but was hobbled by frostbite in last year's world championships after wearing wet socks in a cryogenic chamber. (Haven't we all had that problem?)
"I've been through some dark paths and I think what really has helped me keep my faith was the faith of my fans," Gatlin said. "Them believing in me, wanting me to come back, knowing that I'm a true athlete, a legit athlete, and using that to empower myself every day I get on the track."
Asked whether he was itching for a chance to race against Bolt, Gatlin said, "I wouldn't say itching. He's a great runner, but I'm just glad to be back and in such good form. Anybody I compete against, I want to see them in tip-top shape. I'm just ready for London. When I step to the line and that 6-foot-5 guy is out there, I'm going to go out and try to race against him as well."
London should definitely be entertaining. Gatlin enjoys playing to the crowd almost as much as Bolt.
"I feel like I'm a crowd type of guy," he said. "I don't block them out. If anything, I try to accept them and let the crowd empower me. So screams and head nods, that's great. I love that there are people who have paid money, good money, to come and see a great race. Not only are we runners but we're performers, and I want to go out and put on a good show for them; 9.8 seconds is not four quarters -- we run very fast, almost 30 miles per hour, and so I want to give them a good show so they can see me and have fun with it."
Like many athletes who test positive, Gatlin maintained his innocence. He is also showing the energy and personality that will go a long way toward people accepting his return and rooting for him to win again.
"A lot of people ask me whether I have a chip on my shoulder. Not at all. I'm not that type of person," Gatlin said. "I think life deals you cards and you have to play the cards. And at that point in time, it was for me to experience life as a whole and appreciate what I had and come back and be healthy. And in that process, I acquired a son and he brings joy to my life.
"I was just a young, a 22-, 23-year-old guy who was going through the motions of track and field, from college to professional. I didn't have a chance to experience life and the joys of life. Now I do. I'm a man and I'm going to stop and sign every autograph and take every picture I can, because those people right there have come to see a great show and I definitely want to deliver that to them."