An arbitration panel, in a 53-page ruling released Tuesday, reduced the 25-year-old sprinter's potential eight-year ban to four. With the ban set to expire May 24, 2010, it means Gatlin would be on the sidelines for the Beijing Olympics in August.
Still, the panel left open the possibility of a further reduction.
The three-member panel unanimously ruled Gatlin committed a doping offense when he tested positive for excessive testosterone in April 2006, but the sprinter's first doping offense in 2001 troubled the group.
If that doping violation were erased, that would make Gatlin's 2006 case his first offense, clearing the way for a further reduced ban. First doping offenses often result in a two-year ban, which would make him eligible to run in May, a month before the U.S. Olympic trials.
"I'm a fighter and I've been a fighter from the very beginning and I'm going to continue to fight," Gatlin told The Washington Post on Tuesday. "I know in my heart I haven't done anything wrong.
"I have been robbed. I have been cheated of an opportunity to finish my career."
Gatlin has six months to appeal.
The panel called the circumstances surrounding Gatlin's first offense "the real dilemma."
As a 19-year-old competitor at the world junior championships, Gatlin tested positive for amphetamines, part of a prescribed medication he was taking for attention deficit disorder. Gatlin had stopped taking the medicine a few days before the competition, but it didn't clear his system, according to the case records. He received a two-year ban.
The International Association of Athletics Federations, the sport's world governing body, later reinstated Gatlin after he had served only one year of the ban but never specifically said Gatlin had "no fault" in the case.
USADA characterized Gatlin's reinstatement as a reduction in the ban whereas Gatlin contended it vacated the finding of a doping offense.
The panel said Gatlin could go through an appeals process to seek a finding of no fault in the first case or ask the IAAF for a clarification on its earlier ruling.
"The actions of the IAAF clearly suggest at a minimum, a finding of 'no significant fault' in 2001," the panel said. "However, there is no evidence from which this panel may determine that a finding of 'no fault' under the current WADA standard was made or could be inferred."
"No significant fault" would leave Gatlin still somewhat responsible for the positive test, and it would remain a first doping offense. A "no fault" finding would erase the offense.
The 2001 findings came under different standards than those in effect now because the World Anti-Doping Code had yet to be established.
A family member who said he was speaking on Gatlin's behalf told The Associated Press "the fight is not over for us."
"We feel we were wrongly done," said the man who answered the phone at Gatlin's parents home but declined to give his name. "He has a disability. The family is going to sit down. We're going to decide where to go next."
Gatlin's attorney John Collins did not return messages left on his office telephone and cell phone.
The ruling means Gatlin will have no immediate chance to regain his world record in the 100 meters. He shared the record of 9.77 seconds with Jamaica's Asafa Powell. Since then, Powell has improved the record, finishing in 9.74 seconds last September.
Gatlin, who held himself up as a role model for clean competition before his positive test, has said he doesn't know how steroids got into his system before the April 2006 test.
Gatlin accused a disgruntled massage therapist of rubbing a steroid cream on him to trigger the positive test, but the massage therapist repeatedly has denied the allegations.
The panel rejected that defense and noted Gatlin also acknowledged receiving an injection of what was purported to be vitamin B-12 from an assistant coach before the Kansas meet.
"We have no higher priority than the commitment we have made to clean competition," U.S. Olympic Committee spokesman Darryl Seibel said. "If that means leaving behind when we go to the Games an athlete who has the talent and ability to break world records, but has also cheated, so be it. That's an easy choice to make."
The panel did note Gatlin's cooperation with a federal doping investigation and his apparent sincerity as a witness.
"While Mr. Gatlin seems like a complete gentleman, and was genuinely and deeply upset during his testimony, the panel cannot eliminate the possibility that Mr. Gatlin intentionally took testosterone, or that he accepted it from a coach, even though he testified to the contrary," the ruling said.
USADA general counsel Bill Bock said Gatlin helped federal authorities "in investigating doping in sport, to extent of wearing wire in communications with his former coach," Trevor Graham. Bock also said Jeff Novitzky, the lead investigator in the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative steroid investigation, testified about Gatlin's assistance.
"Mr. Gatlin should be commended for his decision to cooperate with authorities following his positive test," USADA chief executive officer Travis Tygart said in a statement. "However, these efforts do not completely remove his responsibility for his second doping offense. Given his cooperation and the circumstances relating to Mr. Gatlin's first offense, the four-year penalty issued by the arbitration panel is a fair and just outcome."
Gatlin's positive test was announced in July 2006.
Gatlin's arbitration hearing -- overseen by the American Arbitration Association -- was held last July and was not open to the public. The case was reopened last August to gather more information on Gatlin's first offense. One panel member dissented with the ruling, saying the first doping offense should be thrown out because it violated the Americans With Disabilities Act.
Seibel said the USOC was "concerned about the length of time it is taking to resolve these cases."
"It should not take 18 months, or longer, to reach a decision in an anti-doping arbitration," Seibel said.