Olympics 2012: For LaShawn Merritt, a $6 purchase turned into a costly mistake

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Two days after the suspension was lifted, Merritt finished the 400 in 44.74 seconds at the Diamond League meet in Stockholm. The first race in 22 months was rough and well off his personal best of 43.75 in Beijing but, he felt, was close enough to prove the ExtenZe didn’t enhance his on-track performance.

There is one enhancement. Before Merritt takes any new supplement, he calls Howard L. Jacobs, the California attorney he retained to fight the suspension.

A phone call from Kimberly Holland, Merritt’s longtime agent, woke him last October. Jacobs was on the line, too.

A ruling from the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne, Switzerland, came down, they told him. The U.S. Olympic Committee and U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, among several national federations, challenged Rule 45 earlier that year. Voices turned downcast. You won’t be able to compete in London, they told Merritt.

In his home with pictures of Antwan, Merritt felt his heart drop. Then he started trying to figure out the next move.

This amused Holland. Look outside, she said. Ashton Kutcher is there. The joke finally sunk in for Merritt: Kutcher hosted a television show about practical jokes called “Punk’d.”

Merritt could run in the Olympics. Feeling like a man released from jail, he sprinted around the house in celebration.

The court’s three-man panel judged Rule 45, prohibiting athletes suspended more than six months for doping from competing in the next Olympics, “invalid and unenforceable.” The rule punished athletes twice for the same offense, according to the panel, and, violated the International Olympic Committee’s own statute.

He and Antwan were unleashed, finally, to chase Johnson’s record of 43.18 seconds in one of sport’s great tests of speed and endurance. This isn’t the raw, unadulterated challenge of the 100. Yes, natural speed matters, but so does strategy and race pattern and the competition in your head. Years before you can back into the blocks, whisper a prayer, kiss two fingers and point to the sky and stare down the track with an honest, no-kidding shot at the record.

Already holding the fifth-fastest time in history, Merritt replaced Miller with speed czar Loren Seagrave earlier this year and trained at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. After the switch, Merritt won the U.S. Olympic trials in 44.12 seconds, the world’s fastest time this year. Merritt never beat Antwan in a race, and now no one can seem to take down Merritt.

Talk about breaking Johnson’s record comes easily, almost nonchalantly, to Merritt, who engaged the services of a public relations firm to help pursue an acting career after the Olympics. It’s more matter-of-fact than arrogant: The 26-year-old sees this as a natural progression when you break down the percentages, the long, solitary days on Norfolk State’s track merging with the time he needs in each segment of the race.

“I’m more physically ready. I’ll be mentally ready,” Merritt said. “It was taken away from me.”

He meant the career he nearly lost but could just as easily be talking about the brother he did lose, the one pushing him forward.

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