Veteran racers face challenges at Prefontaine

EUGENE, Ore. -- Justin Gatlin, running in his first major meet since serving a four-year doping ban, became a surprising contender for a spot on the U.S. world championship team by posting a time of 9.97 seconds in the men's 100 meters at the Prefontaine Classic.

It didn't matter that he finished sixth in a race won by Jamaica's Steve Mullings in 9.80 seconds. Michael Rodgers of the U.S. was second in 9.85, and Jamaica's Nesta Carter was third in 9.92.

A win "would've been icing on the cake," said a clearly tickled Gatlin, whose best so far in the season had been a 10.06.

He ran despite a strained quad that forced him up a little early while building speed. He said he has not begun speed training yet.

"I'm going to build off that for the next three weeks into nationals," where the U.S. team will be named for August's IAAF Track and Field World Championships in Daegu, South Korea. "I'm just taking this step by step."

Saturday's race was a telling step, though he'll most likely have to finish in the top six at U.S. nationals for serious consideration.

Gatlin, a 2004 Olympic gold medal winner and former world champion, is well off his career-best 9.85. Usain Bolt holds the world record of 9.58.

Gatlin's invite to the event was controversial, but meet director Tom Jordan told the Eugene Register-Guard he believes the sprinter deserves a second chance after serving his punishment. Gatlin remains banned from major European meets.

Unlike other athletes who have been caught, Gatlin, once an ambassador for the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, has never admitted to the offense, sticking to his story that a masseuse with a grudge sabotaged him by using rubdown cream spiked with excessive testosterone.

Will U.S. coaches overlook his background and non-confession and put him on the world sprints and/or relay teams, a precursor to the 2012 Olympics?

I'm not sure," Gatlin said Saturday. "I'm a sprinter, so I have a short-term memory."

Give Round 2 to Allyson Felix, who took third place in the women's 400 meters Saturday.

Felix, two-time Olympic silver medalist and three-time world champion in the 200 meters, came into the 400 ranked world No. 1 with a time of 49.81 earlier this season. On Saturday, she posted a time of 51.41, just ahead of rival Sanya Richards-Ross (51.78) in their second race together since Ross' return from a recurrence of a blood disorder.

U.S. runner Debbie Dunn beat them both, placing second to Botswana's Amantle Montsho, who won with a time of 50.59.

"For me, the 400 is an event that I feel like I'm still learning and is always a challenge," Felix said before the race. "I don't feel as comfortable in the 400 as I do in the sprints."

Stay tuned.

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