The item cost U.S. sprinter LaShawn Merritt six dollars — and nearly his career. At a moment when he was just being a “regular guy,” the reigning Olympic champion in the 400 meters bought a steroid-laced male-enhancement product at a convenience store one night.
Months later, Merritt learned the unconsidered consequences of his purchase: He had flunked three drug tests.
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.”
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.
Merritt took a few classes in business management at Norfolk State University. He trained, worried and waited for a ruling. His sponsors stopped paying him, and his racing income ceased.
“I was at home, looking at my bank account,” Merritt said. “It was, ‘What am I going to do if I’m not able to run in the Olympics?’ ”
Merritt grew angry at himself and the situation, but he did not quit. He didn’t have the money to spend on the customary luxuries — the trainers, massage therapists, chiropractors — but he never stopped getting out of bed and pounding out push-ups and sit-ups. His workouts never ceased.
He had learned more than a decade previous that life doesn’t stop when misfortune hits.
In 1999, Merritt’s brother Antwan, 18 and five years his senior, died after tumbling from a ninth-story window of a dormitory at Shaw University in Raleigh, N.C., after an altercation in the room. He was a freshman.
Merritt said Antwan had been his hero and biggest supporter, dropping him $20 bills after LaShawn belted home runs at his high school baseball games and allowing him to hang with Antwan’s older friends.
“I learned through [his death] that when stuff happens, you just keep on moving forward because nothing else is going to stop moving,” Merritt said. “If you sit in your misery, it’s not going to help in any way.”
When he steps on the track, Merritt kisses two fingers and raises them high. It is a gesture to honor Antwan.
“He never got the chance to see me run,” Merritt said. “I’m doing this for both of us.”
The convenience store clerk who waited on Merritt became the key witness in his defense. An arbitration panel ruled her testimony “devastatingly convincing” and declared that Merritt, though guilty of having a steroid in his body, had no intention of cheating.
The panel gave him the 21-month ban, which allowed him to compete at last year’s world championships, and insisted that he suffer no additional penalty, including being barred from the Olympic Games.
When Merritt’s suspension ended last July, he said, “It was like getting out of jail.” Months later, the Court of Arbitration for Sport overturned the IOC’s rule, declaring that he and other athletes who had completed drug bans were free to participate in the Olympics.
“What else can I do?” Merritt said. “I’ve been cleared by the highest courts . . . I’m coming back still as dominant as when I left off. . . . I’m more ready physically, and I’ll be mentally ready because it was taken away from me.”