In October 2009, LaShawn Merritt walked into a 7-Eleven a few minutes from his home in Suffolk, Va., after an evening at a nightclub. He paid cash for a box of condoms and had the clerk add a packet of four blue pills behind the counter called ExtenZe.
In red capital letters, the packet shouted “LARGER” and “size, pleasure, performance.” The male enhancement pills, with “Doctor approved” written in the corner, cost $6.
Merritt had seen late-night commercials for the product (“Go long with ExtenZe,” retired football coach Jimmy Johnson urged in one), according to an arbitration panel’s report, and hoped to experience the claimed benefits with the woman he was dating.
“I spent $6,” Merritt said, “and it cost me millions of dollars.”
The decision that nearly kept Merritt from the London Olympics, drained his finances and almost destroyed his opportunity to challenge Michael Johnson’s world record in the 400 meters came in a flash, like the blur on the home video Merritt’s mother, Brenda Stukes, took when he was in second grade. In the video, Merritt zipped around a family dinner asking folks, including older brother Antwan, if they wanted to race. Merritt didn’t realize he was acting out his future career.
Fourteen months had passed since Merritt blew past heavy favorite Jeremy Wariner to win the 400 at the Beijing Olympics with the fifth-best time in history. Merritt recently returned from a cruise. Training was over. The man who wants to be normal but whose legs won’t allow that hoped for a break.
If Merritt had checked the back of the packet, where the 39 ingredients include horny goat weed and velvet deer antler, he would’ve noticed 50 mg of dehydroepiandrosterone (better known as DHEA), a notorious anabolic steroid, and 10 mg of pregnenolone, another steroid, resided in each blue pill. Both lurk in the World Anti-Doping Association’s nine-page alphabet soup of banned substances.
“He was not thinking about track,” the 50-page arbitration report said. “His mindset when purchasing the product was thinking about having sex with a woman.”
Over the next six months, Merritt made similar purchases as often as twice each month at 7-Eleven. Merritt’s routine, according to store clerk Leslie James’ testimony in the panel’s report, was to buy a bottle of jungle juice and lottery ticket, step outside, then return for condoms and ExtenZe. But on March 22, 2010, Merritt was stunned to learn he failed three drug tests in the previous six months. At first, Merritt believed acne medication was the culprit, but the DHEA was revealed, Merritt finally looked at an ExtenZe label and, soon after, his name was inextricably linked to “doping” and “male enhancement.” He had never failed a drug test before.
Merritt was suspended 24 months. Nike stopped his endorsement contract. He was prohibited from receiving U.S. Olympic Committee grants or using its training centers. And Rule 45 of the International Olympic Committee’s charter, adjusted in 2008, made any athlete suspended more than six months for doping ineligible for the next Olympics.
Doug Logan, then USA Track and Field’s chief executive officer, excoriated Merritt in a news release after the suspension was announced: “He has now put his entire career under a cloud and in the process made himself the object of jokes. … Personally, I am disgusted by this entire episode.” Logan never spoke to Merritt.
Frustration and humiliation bubbled over. Labelled a drug cheat, Merritt felt helpless. How could a late-night purchase at 7-Eleven transform his career into a punchline?
Before each race, Merritt kisses two fingers, then points them at the sky. He says a quick prayer: Give me strength. Somewhere, Antwan is watching and hears each prayer, Merritt believes. Not once did Antwan get to watch Merritt compete on the track. So, each race, Merritt runs for both of them.
Ten years before Merritt’s ill-fated 7-Eleven visit, Antwan plunged from the window of an eighth-floor dormitory at Shaw University in Raleigh, N.C., and later died. Just 18, Antwan wrote music, gave his little brother $10 for each home run he hit and arranged races between Merritt and older friends in Portsmouth streets. Antwan wanted to be an architect.
“He never got a chance,” Merritt said, “to even start a dream.”
The circumstances of Antwan’s death remain clouded. Five men were charged, and later acquitted by a jury, of involuntary manslaughter. Two were convicted of simple assault and sentenced to 10 days in jail.
Prosecutors alleged Antwan jumped from the window to escape the five men who came to his room to continue a dispute. An altercation on a basketball court started the problem, Merritt believed. He wonders if Antwan was thrown from the window.
“You’re standing in this room with all these people between you and the door,” Wake County prosecutor Howard Cummings told the jury during the 2000 trial of three of the men, according to the Associated Press. “You’ve already been beaten senseless. What is your only alternative but to get out? What would you expect a teenager to do?”
Justice? Far from it, Merritt thought.
All he could do was move forward.
The blue pills landed Merritt on Norfolk State University’s lonely track.
Not knowing when, or if, he could compete again, Merritt enrolled in the university’s business management program. At a football combine in Virginia Beach, he sprinted 40 yards in 4.19 seconds and thought about trying for the NFL as a wide receiver. He thought about playing professional baseball, the sport he adored as a child when stolen bases came easier than his smile. But, mostly, Merritt trained.
Two hours in the morning. Another hour in the afternoon. Six, sometimes seven days each week. Dwayne Miller was there. The coach who didn’t think Merritt was anything special when he first saw him run in 11th grade had never faced a challenge like this: preparing a runner for the unknown. Perspectives on track and life changed. Everything felt tenuous. Uncertainty fueled the workouts’ intensity.
Extra time in the weight room. More abdominal work. A nap. Stretching. Make pasta to last for a couple of days. Sleep. Then live the same day again. There wasn’t money for much else. Friends chipped in to help Merritt pay bills.
The first bit of good news came in October 2010. The North American Court of Arbitration for Sport panel noted while Merritt’s “negligence was on the high end” for not reading the ExtenZe label, the situation was “truly exceptional.” It reduced Merritt’s suspension from 24 to 21 months, effective the date of his first positive test, leaving him free July 27, 2011. The panel also urged Merritt be allowed to compete in the Olympics, since the ban would punish him beyond what was provided in the World Anti-Doping Association’s code.
“Any argument to the contrary,” the panel said, “is mere skulduggery.”
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.
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.