- Bonnie D. Ford, ESPN Senior Writer
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PHILADELPHIA -- Time stands still in this old brick stadium even as runners fly down the straightaways and around the famously tight curves of the track with the throaty pleas of 50,000 fans cascading down on them. Everybody who is or was anybody in American track and field has competed in the Penn Relays, and the annual carnival at Franklin Field provides a thread of continuity in the most well-traveled careers.
Justin Gatlin was voted the athlete of the meet here in 2002 when he was still running for the University of Tennessee. He twice anchored winning 4x100-meter relays in the glittery USA Versus The World series. Yet even in these comforting confines, there was no way Gatlin, now 29, could ignore what had transpired since his last appearance here in 2006 when he was the reigning Olympic 100-meter champion.
If Gatlin needed a context clue as to how much had changed while he was serving a four-year doping suspension, he had only to look at his unfamiliar start position Saturday -- crouching in the blocks to lead off a relay.
"I've never run first leg ever in my life, and running such a sharp curve ... but I think I held my own," said Gatlin, whose USA Blue team, including sprint luminaries Darvis Patton, Ivory Williams and Gatlin's close friend Shawn Crawford, finished third in 38.66 seconds. Jamaica, kick-started by former 100-meter world record holder Asafa Powell, won the race in 38.33 seconds, and the USA Red team, headlined by current 100-meter national champion Walter Dix with Wallace Spearmon, Trell Kimmons and Mike Rodgers, was .10 seconds behind.
"I felt pumped," Gatlin said of his emotions at the start -- his first in a USA jersey since he returned to racing last August. "I felt a surge on the inside. I almost felt like I was coming to tears."
In July 2006, Gatlin tested positive for synthetic testosterone. It was the second doping offense of his career (the first was for a stimulant in medication for attention deficit disorder), which normally translates to a competitive death sentence for an athlete. Gatlin has consistently maintained that the substance must have been administered by a massage therapist in a topical cream without his knowledge or consent. Many find that explanation hard to accept given that he was coached by Trevor Graham, one of the men at the vortex of the BALCO scandal.
Gatlin's case, including the legal rationale that reduced a lifetime suspension to eight years partly because of his cooperation with anti-doping authorities and the appeal that cut that term in half, has been well-documented. He shows no interest in revising history and took media bullets calmly Saturday.
When Jere Longman of the New York Times asked Gatlin, "Shouldn't you just admit it? Then people would probably embrace you more," Gatlin's response was light but pointed: "If I say it right now, are you gonna give me a hug?"
"I've always, for the whole five years since it happened, stuck by my story," Gatlin said. "It hasn't swayed. That's the way I was raised, and if I did it, I would have said so."
Whether Gatlin will break 10 seconds again -- or be in the mix for the U.S. team at this summer's world championships or next year's Olympics -- is far from certain, but the fact that he was in Philadelphia means he is being taken very seriously, baggage and all. USA Track and Field considers the Penn Relays a preparatory meet for worlds, and invites its top athletes to try them in different combinations. The best three at each distance at the outdoor nationals in June qualify for worlds and are automatically named to the relay pool, while another three relay entrants are selected by coaches.
Group dynamics worked beautifully for the elite U.S. women, whose two teams continued their traditional dominance by finishing first and second over Jamaica in the 4x100 and 4x400 Saturday. Three-time 200-meter world champion Allyson Felix, who could become the first U.S. woman in well over 20 years to attempt the 200/400 double at the Olympics if the cards fall correctly, ran the second leg in both races. (She intends to compete in both at the world championships, where the schedule allows for it.) Felix's acceleration in the 4x100, when her legs seemed to blur into a unicycle beneath her, was especially impressive.
Gatlin's peers were predictably neutral or supportive in their comments about him, saying he had served his time and whatever had happened was now between him and his conscience.
"I think it's a humbling experience to present himself in front of all these people who are so critical and skeptical of what he's going to do," said former 100-meter world champion Lauryn Williams, who led off the winning 4x100 team.
Crawford, never a wallflower, was the most outspoken. "I told him when he was warming up, 'Go out there and show the world what they've been missing,'" he said.
But Gatlin said he's trying to turn his focus inward and away from public opinion, which he knows he likely won't change whether he winds up as fast or slower than his former self.
"I think that probably had an effect on my race going into last year," he said, terming himself "more gracious than competitive" in his first few months back last year.
"When I stepped to the line, I wasn't really sure of how I was going to run or what I was going to run, and I just went to the line and competed against whoever was there. I was trying to compete against them instead of running my own race. I was too busy thinking about what is the crowd going to say, are they going to boo me, or not, are they going to cheer for me. Surprisingly, I had a lot of warm receptions and I want to feed off that."
Bonnie D. Ford covers Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at email@example.com.