EUGENE, Ore. -- The race is a mere 100 meters, but to Justin Gatlin, it's the ultimate race for redemption.
The 30-year-old Brooklyn-born, Florida-schooled, Tennessee-trained sprinter continues to insist that the four-year suspension (2006-09) he endured on a doping charge was a horrendous miscarriage of justice. It took him away from the sport at the prime stage of his career, a stretch in which he might have run the sensational times that even Jamaican Usain Bolt might respect.
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But he hasn't done much talking about all those events in recent days, grimacing when some call him "a drug cheat."
He lets his flying feet do most of the talking and they carried him to a brilliant 9.80 clocking, fastest of his life, to win the men's 100 meters final of the USA Olympic trials Sunday at Hayward Field.
It will be 2004 Olympic champion Gatlin, 2007 world champion Tyson Gay (second here in 9.86) and unsung Oregonian Ryan Bailey (9.93) carrying Team USA's hopes in the Olympic 100, with their top domestic challengers, Michael Rodgers (9.94), Darvis "Doc" Patton (9.96) and Trell Kimmons (10.02) poised for potential 4 x 100 relay duty.
"Knowing what a stellar field this would be, and how pretty much even it would be across all the rounds, l knew that getting out of the blocks was going to be crucial," Gatlin said. "The middle phase would have to be almost flawless and to bring it home, I had to make sure I had precise technique to come through the line. I just gutted it out as best as I could. Other than that, the race was a blur.''
His pre-London plans?
"Just go on home and craft my technique," he said. "I think I have a lot left in the tank."
Looking around at his nearest rivals, Gatlin had coasted to an easy win in the 100 semifinals two-plus hours earlier.
Rodgers had been the quickest of these semifinalists in 10 seconds flat, with Gay at 10.04, Gatlin at 10.06 and Florida football and track star Jeff Demps, Kimmons and Patton all sharing 10.10 marks. But hot trials contender Walter Dix, the 2010 and 2011 U.S. champion, seemed to suffer hamstring twinges and limped over the line in a barely qualifying 10.16.
And he'd then labor to a 10.95 eighth-place run in the final, a repeat Olympic dream possibly over for this Beijing 100 and 200 bronze medalist.
After the semis, Gatlin said "can't talk now. I've got important business coming up soon."
Did he ever.
No man has ever won the Olympic 100, sat out the next Games, and returned to medal at the subsequent one.
Carl Lewis, in 1984 and '88, remains the only man to win consecutive Olympic 100 titles. But now Gatlin, the 2004 Olympic king in 9.85, gets the chance to challenge Bolt, and all the rest. That 9.85 had been his all-time quickest, but now he's down to 9.80.
He hadn't been far behind that personal-record pace in his three biggest pre-trials outdoor starts: 9.87 in Doha, Qatar; 9.90 at the Prefontaine meet here in Eugene and 9.93 in Daegu, Korea. All that after winning the world indoor 60-meter title in Istanbul.
Three Jamaicans -- Bolt (9.76), Yohan Blake (9.84) and Asafa Powell (9.85) -- headed the 2012 world list before the Americans moved into their trials. Many were predicting the London Olympic 100-meter final would evolve into a USA-Jamaica dual meet, and now it looks even more likely.
And, oh yes, Gatlin isn't done at Eugene. He's listed to run the 200 meters starting Friday.