By Gene Cherry
BEIJING (Reuters) - To many, sprinter Justin Gatlin will forever be the bad guy of track and field: a drug cheat forced to serve not one but two doping bans.
As he nears the biggest race of his life, against Usain Bolt at the world championships on Sunday, the American hopes the world recognizes he is more than that - much more.
The 100 meters showdown in Beijing matches the 33-year-old, undefeated for two years in sprints, against Jamaican world record holder Bolt in the blue riband event.
With world athletics continuing to wrestle with a series of doping allegations which have rocked the sport in recent weeks, the Gatlin-Bolt clash has come, to many, to represent a tangible manifestation of the sport's woes.
The championships will be littered with drug cheats who have served their punishment, but Gatlin holds a special place in the Hall of Shame.
In normal circumstances that second positive test, in 2006, would have earned him a lifetime ban; but after he co-operated with anti-doping authorities he ended up exiled for only four years.
The 2004 Olympic and 2005 world 100 meters champion is now back and unbeaten since 2013 -- a total of 27 races in both 100m and 200m sprints.
Most of the build-up to the nine-day championships, which start on Saturday, has focused on doping with Gatlin's record very much to the fore.
"Just remember I am more than four years. I am more than two bans," Gatlin told Reuters by telephone on Thursday.
"I have done a lot before, and I have done a lot after that."
Gatlin refuses to consider himself a dope cheat, arguing that his first positive test for a stimulant was a result of medication he had been using for years and maintaining his second came through a masseur rubbing testosterone cream into his legs.
EVIL VERSUS GOOD
Still, though, in the eyes of many in the world of athletics, his race with Bolt is evil versus good, with Bolt, who has never failed a doping test, representing the best of the sport.
"I really don't care what they think," Gatlin said. "I am just a runner like he is a runner. There is no good runner or bad runner. We are just runners. No one is trying to take over the world. No one is trying to blow up the world."
Whether the world would accept him as the sport's 100m champion is of little concern to him, Gatlin said.
"There are not going to be medals passed out to everybody in the world," he said.
"It is going to be passed out to one person, the champion."
Winner of only one of seven career meetings with Bolt, Gatlin admitted every sprinter, including him, would have to be on their 'AA' game to beat Bolt, who has run infrequently this year because of injuries.
"On paper I am in the best shape of my life, and I am ready to do whatever it takes," he said.
That may be faster than the American has ever run.
Gatlin has posted lifetime bests of 9.74 seconds in the 100m and 19.57 in the 200m this year, while Bolt's world records are 9.58 and 19.19 from 2009.
But because of Bolt's injury problems and few races this year, the most pressure might be on the Jamaican, Gatlin suggested.
"I would think a lot of people would say he does (have the much pressure)," Gatlin said.
"He has such a championship winning streak going on. But at the same time I have a lot to prove. I have a lot I want to get done. So I would say it is equal."
Yet he was clear about one thing.
Winning a gold medal 10 years after his first world championship would be more important than just beating Bolt.
"You have got to go through all of the opponents to get to the gold medal," he said.
As for what has been the highlight of his two undefeated years.
"I think the highlight is yet to come," Gatlin said.
(Editing by Ossian Shine)