LaShawn Merritt's doping suspension reduced

By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 18, 2010; 8:21 PM

A convenience store clerk who remembered selling a sexual enhancement product to LaShawn Merritt helped the Olympic gold medalist earn a stunning anti-doping victory, albeit only a partial one.

In a decision released Monday, a three-person U.S. arbitration panel declared that Merritt's three positive steroid tests last fall and winter were caused by accidental ingestion.

Calling the clerk who provided details of Merritt's purchasing habits "devastatingly convincing" and the evidence in Merritt's favor "overwhelming," the arbitration panel declared that Merritt should get a three-month reduction of the mandatory two-year ban for steroids use.

"He's a real stand-up guy and I think the arbitrators saw that," Merritt's attorney, Howard Jacobs, said by phone. "The 7-Eleven person corroborated everything. . . . But he got a 21-month suspension; that's not a slap on the wrist."

The reduction, however, is extremely significant because it allows Merritt, the reigning Olympic and world champion in the 400-meter sprint, to return to competition next July 27 - in time for next summer's world championships in Daegu, South Korea.

"While I acknowledge that I made a mistake . . . I have never taken any substance to gain an advantage on the track," Merritt said in a release issued by Jacobs. "I look forward to returning to competition as soon as possible and proving that my prior successes . . . were achieved honestly and fairly."

The panel also took on the International Olympic Committee and the U.S. Olympic Committee, declaring that any attempt to keep Merritt, 24, from competing in the 2012 Olympic trials or 2012 Summer Games would be inappropriate.

The IOC decided in 2008 that any athletes who receive doping bans of more than six months could not compete in the next Olympic Games, but the arbitrators said that posture conflicts with established anti-doping rules.

The panel's ruling, which may be appealed by the World Anti-Doping Agency, is noteworthy because it pressed anti-doping agencies to acknowledge that some positive tests are the results of genuine accidents rather than an intent to cheat. Handling inadvertent positives has long been a problem for WADA, which governs drug testing in Olympic and most international sport.

Merritt tested positive in October, December and January for DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone), a steroid that can be sold legally in U.S. dietary supplements but has long been banned by Olympic sports. When his results were announced in April, he was openly derided.

Merritt claimed then in a press release that he had taken the sexual enhancement product ExtenZe, but USA Track and Field Chief Executive Officer Doug Logan scoffed at the explanation, saying in a statement that Merritt "brought shame to himself and his teammates" and "has done damage to our efforts to fight the plague of performance-enhancing drugs in our sport."

The panel ruled that because Merritt was buying a product intended for sexual enhancement, not performance enhancement, and because he made the purchase in a 7-Eleven, as opposed to a nutritional supplement store, he had not been completely negligent in using the substance.

The World Anti-Doping Code holds athletes accountable for any banned substance found in their bodies except for in extremely exceptional circumstances, and even in those cases, the athletes often receive significant bans.

"It is vital to the health of sport that anti-doping agencies acknowledge when they believe accidental violations take place as USADA has," the arbitration panel stated in its 50-page ruling.

Merritt resides in Norfolk, where he attends Norfolk State University.

The panel noted that a number of family and friends attended the hearing to support Merritt, but his mother and aunt left the court room when the situation surrounding the ExtenZe was discussed.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company