Under-cooked Gatlin finishes fourth in 150 metres

FILE PHOTO - Athletics - World Athletics Championships – men’s 100 metres heat – London Stadium, London, Britain – August 4, 2017 – Justin Gatlin of the U.S. reacts after the heat. REUTERS/Phil Noble

PRETORIA (Reuters) - World 100 metres champion Justin Gatlin made a sluggish start to his 2018 season when he finished fourth in the rarely-run 150-metres sprint at the Athletix Grand Prix meet in Pretoria on Thursday.

It was the first time the American has run competitively over the distance and the earliest start he has made to a season as he lost out to South African Anaso Jobodwana, bronze medallist in the 200 metres at the 2015 World Championships in Beijing.

Jobodwana claimed victory in a time of 15.08 seconds, followed by South Africans Roscoe Engel (15.17) and Luxolo Adams (15.18) with Gatlin some way back in 15.23.

"It felt good to come out and see the crowd, I'm still a bit jet-lagged," Gatlin told reporters. "I got cramp in my calf in the last 20 metres. Next time I'll come a couple of days earlier.

"I've never started so early in the season, I usually don't open up until May, so it's exciting for me. I have only done tempo work so far, I haven't done speed work yet. But I am getting right for the season."

Gatlin reserved praise for Jobodwana, 25, who is likely to be a medal contender in the 200 metres at the Commonwealth Games next month, especially in the absence of injured compatriot Wayde van Niekerk.

"It was a great run and he is my pick for the gold medal at the Commonwealth Games," Gatlin said.

The 36-year-old American was warmly received in Pretoria by an appreciative crowd, a far cry from the boos that rang around the stadium when he beat Usain Bolt to the 100 metres gold medal at the World Championships in London last year.

He has a tainted past having twice before been banned after testing positive for prohibited substances, and told reporters earlier on Thursday that the negative crowd reaction was hard to take.

"Obviously, that kind of stuff does affect me as a human being, but as an athlete I have to stay focussed, that’s what I do," Gatlin said.

"I don’t just think of myself as a runner. My psyche going into meets ... I think of myself as a fighter."

(Reporting by Nick Said, editing by Ed Osmond)