ROME >> Justin Gatlin's Olympic season is going exactly according to plan.
In four 100-meter races, the American sprinter has shown steady improvement.
It started with three performances in Asia: 10.02 seconds in Kawasaki, Japan, then 9.94 in Shanghai and again 9.94 in Beijing. Then at Saturday's Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, Oregon, Gatlin clocked 9.88 with the help of a tail wind.
Gatlin's next challenge comes Thursday at the Golden Gala Pietro Mennea meet in Rome, where he'll attempt to improve on his track record of 9.75 established last year. A fifth win in the Italian capital would also break a tie with Maurice Greene for most 100 victories at the meet.
"It's been a pretty good start. It's a softer start than last year but that's all designed and planned that way," Gatlin said Wednesday. "Even with a softer start, I still seem to have a good record going into the season. I'm undefeated. So hopefully I can carry that on."
In Eugene, Gatlin appeared to hesitate midway through his race.
"I'm still coming back from my ankle injury so my transition sometimes around 50 or 70 (meters) gets a little sticky, when I'm trying to put more pressure into the ground and get a little bit more speed," he explained, referring to an injury in the offseason. "But I have time over the next month to get everything worked out and ready for the Olympic trials."
Before an anticipated showdown with world-record holder Usain Bolt at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Gatlin has to qualify at the U.S. trials in July.
After Rome, he'll head to Rio for a street race and then will shut down on competition for a while to work on speed endurance — which should also aid his preparation for the 200 meters.
"I will open up the 200 season at the trials, so my first race will be in the first round at trials," Gatlin said.
As at nearly every meet, Gatlin couldn't avoid a question related to his doping past. The 2004 Olympic 100 gold medalist tested positive for excessive testosterone in 2006, was reinstated from his ban in 2010, and returned to capture bronze at the London Games two years later.
So is he getting tired of being treated like a villain?
"It's hurtful," he said. "Because that's not how I portray myself, that's not how my son portrays me and my family. When I make my victory lap I stop and sign every autograph, I take every picture I can. I give back to communities around the world as much as I can. And I don't think everyone does that."
Gatlin usually gets a warm reception in Rome, where he beat Bolt by a hundredth of a second in 2013. Bolt hasn't been back since.
"That was kind of like a launching pad, for me to be able to say, 'OK, I can get up here and I can start dominating again,"' Gatlin said.
Gatlin's opponents Thursday will include European record holder Jimmy Vicaut of France and Asian record holder Femi Ogunode of Qatar.
Another sprinting standout competing is Wayde van Niekerk in the 400. The South African is the first athlete to run the 100 under 10 seconds, the 200 under 20 seconds and the 400 under 44 seconds.
"I'm really a big lover of the 1 and 2, that's why I fell in love with the sport and that's why I do what I do today," Van Niekerk said. "But at this moment I'm fully focused on the 400."
In June, the reigning 400 world champion plans to train with Bolt.
"We both have good relationships with coach (Glen) Mills. I'm extremely excited to learn and pick up some good tips for myself," Van Niekerk said.
World record attempts are expected from Almaz Ayana of Ethiopia in the women's 5,000 and from a strong field in the men's 3,000 steeplechase that features the top four finishers from last year's world championships — Kenyan teammates Ezekiel Kemboi, Conseslus Kipruto, Brimin Kipruto and Jairus Birech.
Also, Olympic long jump champion Greg Rutherford will face the four men who have jumped further than him this season — Marquise Goodwin of the United States, who tops the 2016 list at 8.45 meters, Ruswahl Samaai of South Africa (8.38), Mike Hartfield of the United States (8.34) and Fabrice Lapierre of Australia (8.31).
Rutherford's best this year is 8.30.
"Nothing is ever won in April or May," the British jumper said. "I know when it comes to major championships that I can perform, generally, if I'm fit and healthy."