World-class sprinting is tough enough without giving everybody else a head start.

Or carrying a backpack of denial.

But that's sort of the situation for Justin Gatlin, the onetime Olympic gold medalist and world record-holder who is trying to make up for lost time in more ways than one.

Gatlin's unlikely and uncomfortable comeback continued in a familiar place on Saturday. He took to the Franklin Field track wearing gold shoes and a blue uniform top with "U.S.A." across the front.

"It felt like coming home," Gatlin said after running the leadoff leg for the USA Blue team in the 4x100 relay in the USA vs. the World series before a Penn Relays crowd of 48,531 on a warm, sunny afternoon.

Gatlin's comeback is unlikely because most disgraced sprinters fade from view. Gatlin tested positive for excessive testosterone in 2006, served a four-year suspension, and returned to the sport in a few minor competitions late last summer. He hopes to move center stage this season.

His comeback is uncomfortable because Gatlin, like former baseball star Barry Bonds, continues to insist he never knowingly took performance-enhancing drugs. His story is that his masseur rubbed the illegal substance on his body while he was drifting off to sleep, or humming his favorite song, or otherwise not paying attention.

"For the whole five years since it happened, I've never swayed from my story," Gatlin said. "If I did it [knowingly took PEDs], I would have said it."

Gatlin gets points for persistence. He did his time. He came back after a layoff that would have leveled lesser athletes.

But he's behind in the race. At age 29, he hopes to return to the upper levels of a sport that leaves step-slow sprinters in the dust.

And he's carrying baggage, that stubborn insistence that he wasn't aware of the substances that helped him become one of the fastest men in the world.

Maybe that's his fuel. Maybe he needs that mind-set to compete with sprinters who have a four-year jump on him.

"I think I have as good a chance as everybody else," Gatlin said, looking ahead to the U.S. national championships in June.

Gatlin once covered 100 meters in 9.77 seconds. His best time last year was 10.09.

That's a steep drop, from best in the world to around 10th. Or 15th. The air is that thin, the line that fine, at the upper echelons of the sport.

In other words, Gatlin is trying to make up a lot of ground, after a four-year layoff, in an atmosphere of suspicion if not outright mistrust.

In other words, good luck.

"I thought he did great," said Shawn Crawford, who teamed with Gatlin to help USA Blue to a third-place finish in a time of 38.66 seconds behind first-place Jamaica (38.33) and second-place USA Red (38.43).

If Gatlin is to return to prominence, it will be fitting that he made his start in a national-team setting at the Penn Relays. He was one of this event's most accomplished performers, winning the outstanding male athlete award as a Tennessee star in 2002, and running on five victorious relay teams in the USA vs. the World series in the mid-2000s.

But that was a long time ago. That was a generation ago in world-class sprinting.

Gatlin was no crowd favorite when he was introduced on Saturday. He was no flash at the starting gun.

He was just another sprinter, running an opening leg, handing off the baton and watching the field race away.

Contact staff writer Phil Anastasia at 856-779-3223 or