BEIJING - Four straight times after his spirit-sapping defeat, Justin Gatlin heard some version of this question: Was it good for track that you lost to Usain Bolt?
Four straight times, his response was simply: "I'm thankful."
That non-answer was the best the two-time convicted doper could do under the circumstances. Gatlin handled his .01-second loss to Bolt on Sunday at the world championships with his usual show of class.
The difference in such a close race? The tape shows he stumbled ever so slightly over the last 15 meters and leaned to the line too early while Bolt was bearing down. Maybe that stumble was caused by the extra weight he carries around trying to prove he's not as bad as people say he is.
"No one wanted Gatlin to win," said Jamaican sprinter Asafa Powell, who served a six-month doping ban last year. "I am just glad Usain had the legs to do it."
A typical reaction, which could be why the tears flowed freely when Gatlin buried his face in his mother's shoulder moments after the race.
"I think that everything that was going on, the pressure he put on himself to win, to really silence the naysayers that, one, say he shouldn't be here and, two, say they don't want him to win," said Gatlin's agent, former hurdling great Renaldo Nehemiah. "The only way he could feel victorious is to win, even though he still wouldn't have won in the court of opinion."
Gatlin figures to keep getting his chances -- later this week in the 200, in the 4x100 relay, and then next year at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
Bolt figures to be the favorite -- both of the fans and the bookmakers.
"A gamer," Gatlin called him. "He's a showman."
Gatlin tested positive for amphetamines in 2001, but arbitrators decided he didn't take it to cheat and that doctors prescribed it to treat attention deficit disorder first diagnosed when he was 9. Five years later, he tested positive again, this time for testosterone. The United State Anti-Doping Agency and the IAAF pushed for an eight-year ban. He served four years.
The groundswell of criticism has only increased since Gatlin returned from his doping ban in 2010. Ever since, he's steadily regained and surpassed the form that helped him win gold at the 2004 Olympics in Athens.
Gatlin captured bronze at the 2012 London Olympics and then silver at the worlds in 2013.
"No one said anything (about those races)," Nehemiah said. "Then, when he starts running well, consistently well I should say, it's all of a sudden the threat of someone being able to beat Bolt. People couldn't stand that. They have to create this, 'He's a villain' kind of guy. How is he a villain? What about the other people who are running? You're not talking about them.
"It's like, 'We're going to write all we can because we hate the fact you're winning.' I told him it's a stain you unfortunately can't erase."
This was the first time Gatlin has lost in two years. Those wins were his shield against all the criticism. That facade crumbled after the race, leading to the tears.
"Tonight, he felt defeated, because he had his chance to win it," Nehemiah said. "People are happy that you lost? That's not a nice feeling."