LONDON -- Olympic sprint champion LaShawn Merritt knows the embarrassment of a positive drug test. Oh, yes, he said emphatically.
"When I got accused of being a doper it shed light" on the issue of drugs and sports, he told this newspaper. "I'm not a doper. I simply made a mistake."
Merritt, 25, is one of a number of athletes participating in the London Games despite having tested positive for banned performance-enhancing drugs. Although the World Anti-Doping Agency announced this week it had banned 107 athletes this year, a handful of well-known competitors will compete in the Olympics because of special circumstances surrounding their cases.
The list includes sprinters Dwain Chambers and Justin Gatlin, swimmer Jessica Hardy, soccer star Hope Solo and cyclist David Millar. None of the cases are as peculiar as Merritt's. The reigning champion in the 400 meters might be known best for getting busted for sexual enhancement pills he bought at a 7-Eleven.
It's hardly the stuff of shady trainers with secret potions that circumvent sophisticated drug-testing protocols. But Merritt enters the 2012 Summer Olympics having served a 21-month suspension in a rare instance when officials believed the athlete did not intend to cheat the system.
Drug-testing officials rightfully are circumspect when athletes feign ignorance after a positive test. They have heard too many outlandish explanations that have led to lists of all-time best
Some favorites: spiked toothpaste and a sabotaged wedding cake. Few in the drug-testing business can forget cyclist Tyler Hamilton's explanation that his suspicious blood was the result of a ''vanished'' twin who died in utero.
Those excuses roundly were rejected. And in the case of Hamilton there came an eventual admission of guilt that has cast further aspersions on professional cycling.
Merritt also told the truth although it invited mockery. Who could resist poking fun at a case about an Olympic champion needing a performance-enhancing drug -- for sex.
Merritt tested positive three times in 2009 and 2010 for the steroid derivatives DHEA and pregnenolone. The banned drugs were found in the male enhancement product ExtenZe, a medication that can be purchased without a prescription. In an effort to win a reduced sentence, Merritt provided evidence that he bought it at a convenience store.
Not that long ago, Merritt wouldn't be running in London when the track and field portion of the Olympics begins next week.
The backbone of the Olympic drug-testing program is a standard known as strict liability. In lay terms, it simply means Olympic-sport athletes are responsible for whatever is found in their systems. How it got there does not absolve them of guilt.
But as international anti-doping efforts have grown officials have become more comfortable with judging cases individually. They have responded to compelling evidence that some nutritional products from health food stores contain banned drugs because of questionable manufacturing procedures.
What Merritt did is vastly different than the sophisticated system created by Balco mastermind Victor Conte of San Mateo. Conte spent six months in federal prison for his role in distributing drugs to Olympians, and baseball and football players in one of the biggest sports drug scandals in history.
Since leaving prison in 2006, Conte has tried to resurrect his reputation. He now works with boxers on the Peninsula, as well as helping train Olympian Marlen Esparza of Houston.
Conte has learned some people won't forgive past transgressions, especially when it comes to his case. Conte has come to terms with the public's reaction but is grounded in the belief that "if the intent was to try to cheat then they should come clean."
Merritt has tried to live by that credo as embarrassing as it is to talk about buying a sexual aide. He issued a statement in 2010 to say he had made a ''foolish, immature and egotistical mistake'' for failing to read the product label that listed the prohibited substances.
U.S. Anti-Doping Agency arbitrators agreed but Merritt still had to overcome an International Olympic Committee rule that makes athletes ineligible for the next Games after a drug suspension of at least six months — even if the person already completed the sentence. He won an appeal to race in London.
"My thing when I came back I was going to show my same dominance as when I left off," Merritt said. "The substance didn't give me an advantage on the track. I know I am blessed with a gift."
Shortly after he returned last year, Merritt finished second in the 400 at the world championships in South Korea. Now he hopes his case fades into the background as Merritt tries to become the second runner in history to win the 400 meters in consecutive Olympics.
For a man who started at a high school that didn't have track team, Merritt has a chance to turn an embarrassing chapter of his life into something special.
"It was a time in my life I had to dig deep," Merritt said.
A time he won't soon forget.
Thursday, July 26, 2012
8:44 PM dhm