LONDON — Justin Gatlin’s 9.79-second sprint to an Olympic bronze medal in the 100 meters was a blur on Sunday night.
“Podium,’’ Gatlin said, “that’s all that went through my mind” at the finish line of the so-called “World’s Fastest Man’’ competition at Olympic Stadium.
Usain Bolt and Yohan Blake, both from Jamaica, took the top two positions. Bolt ran for the gold in an Olympic record of 9.63, and Blake equaled his personal best with a 9.75.
“I just wanted to get on that podium and be there for my country,’’ said Gatlin, a former University of Tennessee sprinter who ran his personal best in Sunday’s finale. “Those people in the crowd with the American flags, they are there for us, and I wanted to be there for them.’’
Gatlin, who won gold in the 100 at the 2004 Athens Olympics, said it has been as challenging as one might think for a 30 year old such as himself to complete a return to track’s greatest stage.
“I’ve just been through a lot,’’ said Gatlin, who was suspended from 2006-10 on account of a drug test showing “testosterone or its precursors” in his system.
“Gold is gold, bronze is bronze, but the story that’s behind this bronze, it leaves me speechless,’’ Gatlin said. “It was a dream sitting in my room in the Olympic Village ... I’m here, another eight years later, my road and my journey leading back here.’’
Gatlin ran the fastest time in the semifinals (9.82) earlier Sunday, but that failed to spare him from a nightmarish starting position.
To his right was the 6-foot-5 Bolt, the defending Olympic champion and world-record holder in the event, having run a 9.58 in Berlin in 2009.
To Gatlin’s left was Blake. Nicknamed “The Beast,’’ Blake ran the fastest 100 in the world (9.75) in June in defeating Bolt at the Jamaican trials.
“I had to go out there and be fearless,’’ Gatlin said. “I went out there to just run my heart out.’’
As much respect as Gatlin paid to his competitors, saying he was happy “just to be a part of an epic race,’’ he revealed he could have been even faster.
“My first step was short ... second step was a little choppy,’’ said Gatlin, who failed to get the kind of jump he would have needed to hold off Bolt. “But I put up a good fight, for the flaws I did have in the race.’’
Gatlin’s effort was still good enough to keep him ahead of his American teammates; Tyson Gay finished fourth (9.80) and Ryan Bailey was fifth (9.88).
“This renews a hope for me,’’ Gatlin said.
Moments later, Gatlin shared how he drew confidence leading into the race from friends and supporters on his social media network, some that he hadn’t even met before.
“There were people out there on Twitter, on Facebook, that did envision there was another medal for me,’’ Gatlin said. “They believed, and I’m glad I believed in them believing in me, and I thank them so much.’’
After running the second-fastest time in Saturday’s round one preliminary, Gatlin said he gets a great deal of support from Tennessee fans, and he unleashed a hearty “Go Vols!” near the conclusion of his mix zone interview.
Gatlin was an NCAA champion while running for UT in 2001 and 2002.
“At the end of the day, the best man won today, and that as Bolt,’’ said Gatlin, whose previous personal best was the 9.80 he ran at the U.S. Trials in June. “I want to go out there and beat him; I want to beat Blake, too.
“I still think that I have a lot left in the tank.’’.