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Merritt has a golden opportunity for redemption at London

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Photo - <b>Scott Silverstein/The Washington Examiner</b><br />

LaShawn Merritt, the defending Olympic champion in the 400 meters from the Tidewater area, served a 21-month ban that ended last year after testing positive for a banned substance he mistakenly ingested.
Scott Silverstein/The Washington Examiner
LaShawn Merritt, the defending Olympic champion in the 400 meters from the Tidewater area, served a 21-month ban that ended last year after testing positive for a banned substance he mistakenly ingested.
Sports,Olympics

Merritt favorite in 400 after return from ban

LaShawn Merritt cracks a quick smile when he hears the question. Why, of course there's a major difference between 2008 and 2012. Don't be silly.

"It's in London. It's not in Beijing," he says.

The flippant, practiced answer reveals more. The "it" in question here is the Olympics. Merritt, a track star from Portsmouth, Va., won the gold medal in the 400 meters four years ago, and that alone sets this year's games apart. There's certainly a distinction between going to the Olympics among the favorites and going to the Olympics as the defending champion and front-runner.

Running the 400
LaShawn Merritt took some time at Penn Relays in April to talk about how he attacks his signature event:
"The race is mental. Obviously you have to put in the work so your muscles will recognize and know how to handle the lactic acid -- not just the lactic acid but the pace. It's a race of pace. There are so many fine lines between running 21.2 and running 21.5 [in the first 200 meters]. It's not that big of a difference, but it makes a world of a difference. And especially the biggest thing is coming home off that home stretch and trying to rush it. A lot of people come off and stand up and try to rush it. But you can't rush it. You're not getting any faster. You just have to control it. But that comes from repetition and training, going through that training with that lactic acid already in your body and working on how to control it."

And then there's the reason for the response. Four years after his triumph in Beijing, Merritt will be one of the most polarizing athletes in London after a 21-month ban for testing positive for Dehydro-epiandrosterone, a steroid precursor also known as DHEA that appears in many dietary supplements. Fair or unfair, he will go to the games labeled by some as a drug cheat and by others -- including himself -- as careless at best.

Merritt tested positive three times in late 2009 and early 2010, results he blamed on ingesting a male-enhancement product he bought at a 7-Eleven called ExtenZe. His two-year ban by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency was reduced by three months by an arbitrator in October 2010. It was a surprising result; rarely are accidental usages differentiated from intentional ones. But in this case the USADA and the arbitrator were convinced he was telling the truth based off testimony from a clerk from the convenience store.

That decision, which allowed him to run at the 2011 world championships in Daegu, South Korea, followed an even bigger one by the Court of Arbitration for Sport. That ruling overturned an International Olympic Committee rule that barred any athlete who had received a doping suspension of at least six months from competing in the next Olympics.

"I never thought I could buy something at 7-Eleven and it cost me what it cost me," Merritt told the Bradenton (Fla.) Herald. "It cost me millions of dollars, a reputation, not being able to run for two years. ...

"I didn't read the label. Anything new that has ingredients on it ... I check it now. It's so bad because you can get put in these categories of doping from something that I spent six dollars on."

The arbitration cases cleared him to resume pursuit of another gold medal. While his U.S. teammates applauded, it didn't sit well with his at least one of his foes.

British 400-meter hurdler Dai Greene told the Daily Mail of London in March he would have no problem telling Merritt "you're a cheat, and you shouldn't be here.

"What he did is a massive offense," the reigning world champion told the newspaper. "Integrity of sport is paramount. Drug cheats are taking the places of honest athletes, and that in turn affects sponsorship, income and the ability to become the best. They are no more than thieves, stealing from athletes who work so hard for the love of their sport."

While Americans like Bershawn Jackson and Angelo Taylor jumped to Merritt's defense, the war of words among the hurdlers is just one more thing Merritt has chosen to ignore.

"People are entitled to their opinions," he says. "I can't control what everybody says. People are going to talk, but I'm just going to continue to do what I do."

What he did was continue training. After his return to the sport in April of last year, Merritt finished second at Daegu and wound up with the world's best time in the 400 in 2011. After relocating from the Tidewater area to train under Loren Seagrave at IMG Academies in Bradenton, he has been even better in 2012. He hasn't lost a race, winning the Olympic trials in Eugene, Ore., last month in a 2012 world-best 44.12 seconds.

In fact, it's easy to make a case that after Michael Phelps, he's the most likely athlete from Maryland, Virginia or the District to bring home an individual gold from London.

"I was born to do this," he says. "When those lights turn on and I'm under those lights, I feel like I'm home and at peace. Nothing's going to change. I'm going to come out and work hard and perform like I always have. I'm excited. More than anything else, I'm happy to be back and excited to go out and do what I love."

And that's winning.

"It's the same race, the same 400," he says. "... It's not too much overthinking. A lot of people may overthink it. But it's 400 meters. I've been running this event professionally for seven years now. This is what I do. This is what I work hard every day to do. It's just a matter of lining up and executing."

ssilverstein@washingtonexaminer.com

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