Rome - Controversial American Justin Gatlin has fired a warning to rivals that he will be the man to beat at this summer's world athletics championships in Beijing.
Gatlin lines up at the Rome leg of the Diamond League on Thursday as the man of the moment in the men's 100m, having recently set a stunning new personal best of 9.74 seconds in Doha last month.
It has also put the 28-year-old American, who won Olympic gold in Athens in 2004 before being handed a four-year ban for doping in 2006, on a Beijing collision course with six-time Olympic champion Usain Bolt.
Dominate each race
In the Jamaican's absence from the fourth event in the 14-leg series, Gatlin will be expected to power to victory in the Italian capital, where he beat Bolt in the men's marquee event in 2013.
"I want to go out there and dominate each race and that's what I've been doing," Gatlin told reporters on Wednesday.
While the American stopped short of saying he would be favourite in Beijing in August, he admitted he expects his rivals to know that he will be the man to beat.
"Right now I can't consider myself favourite because it's months away. I'm just trying to stay healthy and strong," added Gatlin.
"But having two world leads does put me in position to say entering a race, 'OK, I'm the man to go out there and go against'."
After a modest comeback to the sport in 2010, Gatlin claimed bronze behind an unstoppable Bolt at the London Olympics in 2012.
But the American has upped his game and last year ran six of the seven fastest 100m times in the world, remaining undefeated as he set personal bests in the 100m (9.77s) and 200m (19.68s).
If there was any doubt about Gatlin's challenge, the American clocked the fastest time of 2015 for the 100m (9.74) in Doha and 200m (19.68) in Eugene last month.
But his performances, and his progress this season, have raised eyebrows.
British distance runner Paula Radcliffe notably hit out when American sportswear giant Nike, who ended their sponsorship of Gatlin in 2006, handed him a new deal on the back of last month's performance in Qatar.
"I am very disappointed to hear this news," Radcliffe wrote in a Twitter message.
Please the crowd
While the men's 100m is the big attraction, Croatian high jumper Blanka Vlasic will make her comeback to competition but is expected to be pushed by Olympic champion Anna Chicherova and world champion Setlana Shkolina.
Fans at the Stadio Olimpico will also be hoping French pole vaulter Renaud Lavillenie can rise to the occasion having gone over 6.05m in Eugene last week, which put him equal second on the world all-time outdoor list.
It suggests Lavillenie could beat the meeting record of 5.94m, set by Sergey Bubka in 1984 when it was then also a world record.
Among Lavillenie's rivals in Rome will be Germany's Raphael Holzdeppe, who beat the Frenchman to the 2013 world title and the last time this discipline was held in Rome, two years ago.
Triple jumper Pedro Pablo Pichardo will also be hoping to please the crowd as he edges ever closer to Jonathan Edwards' 30-year-old world record of 18.29m.
Pichardo, 21, leapt to 18.08 in Doha at the opening meeting of the 2015 series three weeks ago to become the third best performer ever.