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Gatlin faces biggest test today

Photo by Mike Phillips

Photo by Mike Phillips

ROVERETO, Italy -- Former Olympic 100-meter champion Justin Gatlin is looking forward to the first serious test of his return from a four-year doping ban.

In Tuesday's Palio della Quercia meet, the American will face three runners who have beaten the 10-second mark this season: Johan Blake (9.89) and Mario Forsythe (9.95) of Jamaica and Ryan Bailey (9.88) of the United States.

Bailey and Forsythe set their times in Sunday's Rieti Grand Prix.

Gatlin has posted victories at three minor meets in Estonia and Finland since being cleared to compete again, although his fastest time was 10.17.

"When you have a race like this here, where you have guys coming off running 9.8s and keep having season's bests after every race you don't really look for a time, you just try to go out there and compete with them and the time will come," Gatlin said in an interview with The Associated Press on Monday. "I don't want to bog my mind down with too much. I'm just going to worry about technically running a good race and giving some good competition."

Gatlin won gold in the 100 at the 2004 Athens Olympics in 9.85, then tested positive in April 2006 for excessive testosterone. He used to command expensive appearance fees, but meet director Luigo D'Onofrio said the only money Gatlin will take home here is a small prize if he finishes in the top six, just like most other entrants.

The first-place prize is $2,285.

"We wouldn't have accepted anything else," D'Onofrio said. "If he wants to race under the same conditions of everyone else -- just for the prize money -- I have no problem. Gatlin is a great person. Of course he did something he shouldn't have, but he paid the price for it."

Gatlin is just happy to have the chance to earning any money.

"Well, when you go from four years of not making anything to making something here and there, it's a good thing," he said. "The faster you run and the better you compete, the more doors open -- that's how track and field is."

Gatlin now trains under speed technician Loren Seagrave, who once worked with former world record-holder Donovan Bailey, and Seagrave's associate Rana Rieder.

During his prime, he was coached by Trevor Graham, who was given a lifetime ban by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency for his role in helping athletes obtain performance-enhancing drugs. Graham also coached Marion Jones and Tim Montgomery, who were both tainted by doping.

"It's been a tough transition," Gatlin said. "My running style is a little different. ... I still have some aches and pains in my quads and things like that, but hopefully this is just a prelude for me to go out there and run even better next year."

After Rovereto, Gatlin will hop on a train to a meet in Padua.

These minor meets are quite a change from the jet-set circuit where Gatlin used to compete -- in all the major cities.

"I feel like I'm backpacking through Europe," he said. "It makes me feel like a rookie all over again, which is not a bad thing. I think anybody would give an arm or a leg to start their career over again."

The long-term goals for Gatlin start with next year's U.S. trials, where he hopes to qualify for the American team at the world championships in Daegu, South Korea. Then, of course, there's the 2012 London Olympics.

"I think I've always been a championship-style runner," he said. "I think that coming back at this point in time has given me a running start into these championship years to come."