Justin Gatlin hasn't felt this lean or this quick or even this hungry — he's cut way back on cheeseburgers and chocolate — in quite some time.
Using a shorter, more compact stride, the American sprinter has won all 11 of his 100-meter races this season, although none have been against a certain person named Usain Bolt.
Yet, no matter how many events Gatlin wins or how fast he flies down the track, there's one thing he can't outrun — his checkered past.
Although he's four years removed from serving his four-year doping suspension, some meets still refuse to include him.
Gatlin wasn't invited to the Diamond League race in Stockholm on Thursday. Same with Birmingham, England, three days later, or the competition in Zurich on Aug. 28. All these Diamond League races are considered the biggest in this, a middle year in the Olympic cycle that does not include outdoor world championships.
"I guess paying dues in their eyes is not ever running again in their races," said Gatlin, the 2004 Olympic 100-meter gold medallist who tested positive test for excessive testosterone in 2006, was reinstated from his ban on July 24, 2010, and captured bronze at the London Games two years later. "I look at myself as the 'Batman' of track — a vigilante. You may not like me, but I'm needed."
Meet directors insist there's no grudge and that different races simply have different protocols.
The race in Zurich, for instance, is owned by a private club and its bylaws include a provision where there will be no invitations extended to any athletes banned for two years or more.
However, there's wiggle room. That particular meet invited Gatlin last season because he was leading the Diamond League in the 100 and that race was the final.
This season, since the 200 counts in the standings and the 100 is an invitational race, "we would certainly not invite him," meet director Patrick Magyar said in a phone interview.
It could've been quite the showdown, too, with Bolt expected to attend. Gatlin beat Bolt on June 6, 2013, at a Diamond League race in Rome, one of the few to hold off the Jamaican sensation, who's the world record holder in the 100 and 200.
"There's no personal animosity," Magyar said. "The decision of the general assembly stands as this: We don't want to give our money to athletes that have brought the sport disrepute."
A few years back, Rajne Soderberg, the President of Euromeetings, said the organization representing Europe's top track events "will continue to recommend that members do not invite athletes who we believe cause disrepute to our meetings and our sport."
Soderberg didn't respond to numerous emails sent this summer by The Associated Press to see if that sentiment still held true.
There are those who contend that such a stance amounts to penalizing an athlete twice, since they've already served their time. The International Association of Athletic Federations (IAAF), the governing body for the sport, doesn't see it that way. Gatlin will have been invited to nine of the 14 Diamond League races by the end of the season.
"It is up to the meeting organizers to decide which athletes are welcome, and whether they will add value to the competition," Nick Davies, the Deputy General Secretary of the IAAF, wrote in an email. "By the nature of an 'Invitational Meeting' — athletes must be invited to compete and there is no obligation on a meeting organizer to select any specific athlete if they prefer not to."
So while fellow American Michael Rodgers has a chance to increase his advantage in the 100-meter Diamond League standings in Stockholm — he leads Gatlin by a point — the 32-year-old Gatlin will compete at another race in Amsterdam on Friday to stay sharp.
"I will continue to voice my displeasure in meets punishing Justin (and other athletes who've served their bans) who under IAAF rules, should be allowed to compete fairly in the sport with everyone else," Gatlin's agent, Renaldo Nehemiah, wrote in an email. "The IAAF has established the rules. And we're abiding by them. Unfortunately, those rules don't appear to be enough for some meets."
Gatlin dropped 14 pounds — by cutting out sweets — over the off-season and refined his midrace mechanics. All for one purpose — to catch Bolt, who has kept his schedule lighter this season to heal up from nagging injuries.
"I'm just scratching the surface," said Gatlin, who's posted the world's fastest times in the 100 (9.8 seconds) and 200 (19.68) this season. "To be able to run 9.8 (seconds) consistently, it's just saying, 'I'm ready to drop something faster.'"