On track:  Justin Gatlin celebrates his silver medal at the 2016 Rio Games behind Usain Bolt, the man Gatlin has beaten just once in his career. AFP
On track: Justin Gatlin celebrates his silver medal at the 2016 Rio Games behind Usain Bolt, the man Gatlin has beaten just once in his career. AFP

Justin Gatlin has become increasingly irritated at being labelled a dope cheat, contrasting with Usain Bolt’s superhero image in the sprinting world, but he can set that aside by spoiling the latter’s farewell at the World Athletics Championships.

The 35-year-old American — who in 2016 became the oldest man to win a 100m Olympic medal when he took silver behind Bolt — will get one last go at the Jamaican legend when the world championships get under way in London on Friday.

It will be asking a lot of Gatlin — who served a four-year ban, reduced from eight, for doping from 2006 to 2010 — to achieve that, having beaten Bolt only once in nine meetings over the shorter sprint distance, and that was four years ago in Rome.

There exists a mutual respect between the two rivals to the extent the Jamaican was horrified by the booing and jeering of the American prior to the 100m final in Rio and then again at the medal ceremony.

"I personally think he’s a great athlete," said Bolt after the Rio games. "He shows up and pushes you to run fast and be at your best at all times."

Gatlin, too, is gushing about Bolt, whose crowd-pleasing antics have gilded his image as the good guy, while the American has often been cast as a pantomime villain.

"I have the utmost respect for Usain," said Gatlin. "Away from the track, he’s a great guy, he’s a cool guy, there is no rivalry between us.

"There is no bad blood. I’m a competitor, he’s a competitor and he has pushed me to be the athlete that I am today."

Gatlin — who has been one of the most tested athletes in sport since his return from the ban — showed his class in adding Olympic bronze (2012) and silver in the 100m to go with the gold he won in the pre-Bolt era in Athens in 2004, when he also took bronze in the 200m.

He has the full house of Olympic 100m medals — plus a plethora of world championship medals including the 100m and 200m golds from 2005 — but whether it measures up to what he could have won had he not fallen foul of the dope testers is a moot point.

After four years in the wilderness, Gatlin tried and failed three times to make it with a National Football League team, and having lost his lucrative sponsorship deals, he had to sell his house and live in more spartan surroundings.

On his return to the track, there was a lot of anger stored up — no longer the sense of fun that as a child had seen him dress up as Batman and jump on his parents’ bed with them asleep — but he addressed the issue just as he had his attention deficit disorder.

Ironically, as Gatlin told the New York Times in 2016, he saw himself still as Batman, but in his role as "a vigilante". He said: "I was too angry; it was deteriorating my character," he told the newspaper. "I didn’t like who I had become."

Intense chats with a priest brought peace and seemingly resolved that issue, but it has not lessened his hunger for success on the track.

Although he has hinted he might try to push his ageing legs and body to make the Tokyo Olympics in 2020, realistically London may represent the last chance to be a genuine contender at a major championship — and to deliver a title for his demanding seven-year-old son, Jace. "I mean, if anything, it makes me nervous. Your son telling you, ‘You better win’," he told US Magazine in 2016.

"If anyone else in the crowd is like, ‘You better win,’ I’m like, ‘I’m going to try.’ That’s why I’m here; I’m trying.

"But if my son says that, I’m trying to move mountains," Gatlin said.

AFP

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