Gatlin lived up to the pre-season hype by winning the 100 metres in a world-leading 9.74 seconds at the Diamond League opener, a personal-best time and a new meet record for Doha. While Bolt hasn't made his season debut yet, it was an early marker from Gatlin ahead of their anticipated showdown at the world championships in Beijing in August.
"That was for him (Bolt)," Gatlin said. "I just wanted to go out and put down a good time. I know I had to go out and make a statement tonight. That's what my coach told me to do."
There was a big gap between Gatlin and his chasers, with U.S. relay teammate Michael Rodgers second in 9.96 and Keston Bledman of Trinidad and Tobago third in 10.01.
Gatlin was the fastest man in the world last season over both 100 and 200 metres while Bolt rested, but went even faster in his first 100 of 2015, despite the sweltering heat at Qatar Sports Club.
Some other big names didn't do as well on the night.
Double Olympic and world long-distance champion Mo Farah made his Doha debut, but had a rare loss on an outdoor track when he couldn't catch Ethiopian Hagos Gebrhiwet in the 3,000. That brought raucous cheers from the Ethiopian fans dress in their red, yellow and green soccer shirts in one corner of the stadium.
The defeat for Farah, who is starting his track season much earlier than normal, showed he was still human, he said.
"I haven't had a hard competition like that since Moscow (the 2013 worlds)," he said.
Farah struggled to kick into another gear over the final lap and finally found some power through the last turn to come back through the field, but could only get second. Gebrhiwet was the world silver medallist in the 5,000 behind Farah in Moscow.
Despite the loss, Farah went on a lap of honour and was mobbed by fans and volunteers as he tried to come off the track, with them all clamouring for a selfie with him.
Jasmin Stowers showed she's a rising star by winning the 100 hurdles in a personal-best 12.35 seconds, a new Diamond League record. Olympic champion Sally Pearson and 2014 Diamond Race winner Dawn Harper-Nelson were both outside the top three.
The 23-year-old Stowers has improved her PB three times in 2015 after 12.40 and 12.39 performances previously this year. The latest time matched Pearson's winning mark at the Olympics.
"I was really nervous coming in," said Stowers, who was drawn next to Pearson and pulled away from the Aussie through the last half of the race. Pearson was fourth and Harper-Nelson last after crashing into a hurdle.
Allyson Felix breezed to victory in the 200 metres in a meet-record 21.98 seconds. It was Felix's first 200 of the season, and she broke out into a big grin as she caught a glimpse of her fast winning time as she crossed the line.
"I surprised myself a little bit," the Olympic champion said. "I wasn't sure where I was at."
American Bershawn Jackson won the 400 hurdles, holding under pressure through the final stretch after clipping the last barrier.
Like Farah, some other middle and long-distance runners struggled: 800-meter world champion Mohammed Aman was ninth in a race won by Djibouti's Ayanleh Souleiman. The battle between Abebe Aregawi and Sifan Hassan didn't materialize in the women's 1,500, with Hassan second behind Ethiopia's teenage prospect Dawit Seyaum. Aregawi was seventh.
In the field events, Cuba's Pedro Pichardo leaped 18.06 metres for the third longest triple jump in history, beating Christian Taylor's 18.04 in a fantastic duel in the pit. World champion Teddy Tamgho ruptured an Achilles tendon and said he would need surgery, almost certainly ruling the Frenchman out of defending his title in Beijing.
Greece's Konstantinos Filippidis cleared 5.75 in the pole vault, grabbing his chance after world-record holder Renaud Lavillenie withdrew in the week with a shoulder injury.
Tianna Bartoletta of the U.S. won the long jump with 6.99 metres, but only after one of a couple of glitches on the night with the technology. It was announced that Lorraine Ugen had set a British record with 7.10 metres, only for organizers to say more than 10 minutes later that was a mistake.
Gerald Imray is on Twitter at www.twitter.com/GeraldImrayAP