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Shamed, former U.S. track star Gatlin vows comeback

Photo by FRANK FRANKLIN II

Photo by FRANK FRANKLIN II

Justin Gatlin the sprinter lived life in sub-10-second bursts. Justin Gatlin the banned doper has had four years to obsess about getting that life back.

Four years to think about how his suspension cost him his prime years. Four years to think about how to repair his tattered reputation. Four years to figure out how to catch the fastest man on the planet, Usain Bolt.

Eligible for reinstatement July 24, Gatlin has intensified his training, determined to write a successful final chapter to a career that has included tying a world record, an Olympic gold medal and the humiliation of being caught doping -- something he promised would never happen.

"I just hope that 9 seconds of my life from this point on can make up for four years," the 28-year-old Gatlin told The Associated Press in an extensive phone interview.

The typically reclusive Gatlin realizes he's in a Catch-22: Post fast times and people will be skeptical. Run slow and they'll say it only figures.

That he simply can't fix.

"If you love my performance, so be it and thank you," Gatlin said. "If you don't, you don't. There's other runners out there for you to love."

There was a time when Gatlin -- not Bolt -- was the face of track and the sprinter to beat.

Gatlin was one of the fastest men on the planet then, tying the 100-meter world record of 9.77 seconds, a run that came weeks after a positive test in April 2006 for excessive testosterone and has since been erased.

He won Olympic gold in the 100 meters at the 2004 Olympic Games, followed by world titles in the 100 and 200 a year later.

In an era filled with bad characters and drug cheats, Gatlin was on his way to becoming the sensation of American track, selling himself as the sprinter who was doing things the right way and helping the sport emerge from its dope-riddled past.

A role model for clean competition -- until he got caught.

To this day, he says he doesn't know how a banned substance got into his system.

"I did my check, my background check on the supplements I took since I started professional track, all the way from 2003 to 2006," Gatlin said. "It just didn't add up. Everything was the same. The only person that was touching my body at that point and time was the masseuse. I just eliminated the factors and came across a lot of sketchy stuff that I felt wasn't on the up and up.

"There's no smoking gun, but I feel that I know I've been victimized in some manner," he added. "At the same time, you allow yourself to step into doorways and into dark alleys. You just don't appear there."

He said he no longer has a relationship with his former coach Trevor Graham, who was given a lifetime ban from the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency for his role in helping his athletes obtain performance-enhancing drugs. Graham also coached dopers Marion Jones and Tim Montgomery.

"I think (Gatlin) was taken advantage of by his coaches, to a certain extent," said Travis Tygart, CEO of USADA. "But you can't stick your head in the sand and let people in locker rooms or at their houses, with no medical degrees, inject you with stuff. I hope other athletes will learn the lesson he's had to learn, which is you have to be thoughtful and judicious who you associate with."

Track and field has been rocked by high-profile doping convictions in recent years. Last week, American 400-meter runner LaShawn Merritt accepted a provisional suspension after testing positive for a banned substance used in an over-the-counter male enhancement product, an embarrassing episode for the Olympic gold medalist.

Another black eye for the sport.

Later this summer, Gatlin gets a chance to redeem himself.

He's training under speed technician Loren Seagrave, who once worked with former world-record holder Donovan Bailey. On a track in suburban Atlanta, they're working on overhauling Gatlin's starts and acceleration. Gatlin also is trimming some weight, not fat but muscle.

Gatlin bulked up while he was banned in an attempt to latch on in the NFL. He worked out for the Houston Texans and Arizona Cardinals, though he didn't sign with either team.

Now, all that extra muscle must go.

Gatlin is attempting a comeback at an age when sprinters are more likely to wind down than ramp up. But he looks at fellow American Tyson Gay and Jamaica's Asafa Powell as reasons for a return. They're both around his age and still considered among the best in the world. Bolt, Gay and Powell went 1-2-3 in the 100 at worlds last summer.

"I think I have a shot just like them -- or even better -- to go out there and win a medal," Gatlin said. "That's what I'm working for."

His calculated 100-meter times in practice are somewhere around 9.8 seconds. A nice number, for sure, but one that won't make the cut nowadays.

Not with Bolt around.

The 23-year-old Jamaican has obliterated world records with such ease in both the 100 (9.58 seconds) and 200 (19.19), dusting opponents even as he clowns toward the finish. Bolt's biggest competition has been the clock, altering sprinting in ways few could've imagined.

Watching him run has only made Gatlin more antsy to return. He beat Bolt on his way to winning the 200 at worlds in '05.

"Was he the Usain Bolt he is now? No, he wasn't," Gatlin said. "That's a great runner who's running. You want to be on that line with him."

Can Gatlin someday catch Bolt?

"That's a whole other kettle of fish," Seagrave said. "After a layoff and a few more years ticking off the calendar, Justin has to step it up a notch. ... But there's no reason he can't run extremely fast."

Gatlin doesn't have a schedule mapped out yet. He's trusting that meet directors will give him a chance even with that dark cloud of doping hovering over him.

"I hope that my four years is punishment enough, and I don't have to worry about being blackballed from meets," Gatlin said.

Tom Jordan, the meet director for the Prefontaine Classic, said athletes who are returning from suspension would be given consideration.

"But if there's someone of comparable ability who hasn't served a drug suspension, who would you give the lane to?" said Jordan, whose meet is July 3, before Gatlin's reinstatement. "You want to reward the athletes who have been ostensibly clean."

Still, USA Track and Field CEO Doug Logan believes in second chances and summoned Gatlin for a hold-nothing-back meeting.

It was a frank discussion, both making their points.

"We recognize that if an athlete decides to return to competition after a doping suspension, a federation has two choices: to ignore the athlete's return and make the person a pariah, or to try to use the lessons that athlete has learned to help positively affect our next generation of athletes," Logan said in an e-mail to the AP. "Justin has an opportunity here."

Gatlin has taken his tale to the kids, too, lecturing at a handful of schools around the nation. His message is simple: Take responsibility for yourself.

"At the end of the day, it's your career on the line," Gatlin said.