Merritt, a native of Portsmouth, Va., was banned from his sport, labeled a cheater, scoffed at internationally and vilified by USA Track and Field leadership. Even worse, for Merritt to hope to repair his decimated reputation, he would have to explain exactly what he had purchased, and why.
So after the pain came pure embarrassment.
“It was just, ‘How could I have made this poor choice of judgment?’ ” said Merritt, 25. “It really had nothing to do with the sport. It was just tough for me to accept the mistake I had made . . . I had to man-up and accept the consequences.”
Nearly three years later, Merritt is back, running fast, the early favorite to win a second straight gold in his event at the Summer Games in London. He dominated the field last month in a race in Doha, Qatar, winning in a world-leading time of 44.19 seconds.
But after the positive doping tests stemming from his use of a product called ExtenZe, which contains the steroid DHEA, he was banned from competing for more than the 21 months. His reputation and bank account might never fully recover.
“I wasn’t able to compete, and I’m being called a ‘cheat,’ ” he said during a recent meeting with reporters in Dallas. “It got to me, but training got me through it
. . . S
ix dollars cost me millions of dollars over a couple of years.”
‘How stupid he had been’
The mistake came just over a year after Merritt stunned Jeremy Wariner, the reigning Olympic and world champion, with a dominant victory in the 400-meter final at the 2008 Beijing Games. On a break from training in October 2009, Merritt walked into a 7-Eleven store after an evening at a nightclub, according to testimony recorded in an arbitration panel’s report on his case, and paid cash for a lottery ticket, a container of juice, and a men’s personal product.
He also requested a four-pill packet of the ExtenZe that was kept behind the counter. He made the same purchases several times in the ensuing months, according to a convenience store clerk who waited on Merritt and recalled his routine.
In the spring of 2010, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency notified Merritt of the positive test. At first, he speculated that an anti-acne cream might have been the culprit. When that turned up negative for steroids, Merritt examined a box of ExtenZe. His heart sank when he studied the ingredients.
“He thought how stupid he had been,” the arbitration panel wrote. “Rather than hiding this fact, Mr. Merritt announced it to the world, recognizing the humiliation that would soon follow . . .”
It was unclear, at first, whether Merritt would be eligible to return for the 2011 world championships in Daegu, South Korea, and whether he would ever again be able to compete in an Olympic Games. The standard ban for a first-time steroid offense is two years, which would have rendered him ineligible for the world championships.