ROME, June 3- Controversial Justin Gatlin is expected to continue laying down the gauntlet to Jamaican sprint rival Usain Bolt when the American takes centre stage at the Rome leg of the Diamond League series on Thursday.
Held over one day in the Italian capital, the Rome Golden Gala is the fourth event in the 14-leg series after Doha, Shanghai and Eugene.
Bolt, the six-time Olympic champion and the sport’s poster boy following years of doping suspicion and scandal in athletics, is not participating having only recently made his European debut this season by winning the 200 metres at the Golden Spike event in Ostrava in a time of 20.13sec.
It gives Gatlin, the main attraction in Rome along with high jumper Blanka Vlasic, pole vaulter Renaud Lavillenie and triple jumper Pedro Pablo Pichardo, the chance to once again show Bolt he means business ahead of this year’s world athletics championships in Beijing.
Gatlin, the 2004 Olympic champion who served a four-year ban from 2006-2010 after testing positive for testosterone — his second doping offence — is now in the largely unanticipated position of becoming a bona fide rival for Bolt if and when the pair line up for the 100m final in China later this summer.
But given the American’s doping past, a string of performances that, on paper, have put him on a par with Bolt, have cast a shadow.
After a modest comeback to the sport in 2010, Gatlin progressed sufficiently to claim bronze behind an unstoppable Bolt at the London Olympics in 2012.
The American upped his game and last year he ran six of the seven fastest 100m times in the world, remaining undefeated as he set personal bests in the 100m (9.77 sec) and 200m (19.68 sec).
If there was any doubt about Gatlin’s challenge, the American clocked the fastest time of 2015 for the 100m (9.74) and 200m (19.68) in Doha last month.
While Gatlin is showing Bolt — the Jamaican sprinter and showman popularly known as the “fastest man on earth” — he means business, his performances, and his progress this season, have raised eyebrows.
British distance runner Paula Radcliffe notably hit out when American sportswear giant Nike, who ended their sponsorship of Gatlin in 2006, handed him a new deal on the back of last month’s performance in Qatar.
“I am very disappointed to hear this news,” Radcliffe wrote in a Twitter message.
Even Lance Armstrong, who was stripped of seven Tour de France titles for doping throughout his career, referred to Gatlin’s performance during a radio show discussing the topic of doping in sport.
“You look at the case of Justin Gatlin, tested positive two or three times, he’s now back on the track, he’s probably being tested 82 times a day,” said Armstrong.
“And he has the fastest time in the world in the 100m dash this year. He’s a favourite for a gold medal. I don’t know. Did he just find a way to do it clean? Let’s hope so.”
Gatlin has been dismissive of inquiries into his doping past. Asked recently by one journalist to confirm he is competing clean, he replied: “I have said everything I had to say on that. There is no commentary.”
While the men’s 100m is the big attraction, Vlasic — who has cleared the two-metre mark over 100 times — will make her comeback to competition but will be pushed by Olympic champion Anna Chicherova and world champion Setlana Shkolina.
The men’s triple jump, meanwhile, should also be in the spotlight.
Pichardo’s jump of 18.06m in Doha last month was the third farthest of all time. The Cuban now has only retired British great Jonathan Edwards ahead of him with jumps of 18.16 and 18.29 — the latter a 30-year-old world record.