- Associated Press - Thursday, August 2, 2012

LONDON — First a ban. Now a bad leg. Just getting to London has been difficult for LaShawn Merritt.

Now that he’s here the question is whether he will be healthy enough to defend his Olympic 400-meter title.

Merritt, who returned to track last season after serving a 21-month drug suspension, is a heavy favorite in the event that starts Saturday.

Or at least he was before hobbling off the track two weeks ago after tweaking his left hamstring in a tuneup race.

“It’s difficult to tell” if Merritt will be completely healthy, his coach, Loren Seagrave, wrote in an email to The Associated Press on Thursday. Seagrave said Merritt has been resting and rehabbing the hamstring and is “much improved and pain free.”

Merritt was steadily rounding back into form following his return last summer after being suspended for using a banned substance found in an over-the-counter male enhancement product.

Even after serving his punishment, Merritt wasn’t sure he would be allowed to compete in London. But the Court of Arbitration for Sport threw out the International Olympic Committee rule that bars any athlete who has received a doping suspension of more than six months from competing in the next Summer or Winter Games.

The court said the rule was “invalid and unenforceable” because it amounts to a second penalty, clearing the way for Merritt to compete in London.

“Things happen for a reason,” Merritt recently said. “I’m more hungry than ever because (track) was taken away.”

Merritt was putting the finishing touches on his training when he pulled up shortly before the homestretch at a Diamond League race in Monaco on July 20. He hopped around and held the back of his left leg, before grinning and sounding optimistic about his chances of being ready for the Olympics.

Since that night in Monaco, Merritt has been taking it easy on the leg. The biggest challenge to his crown may come from teenager Kirani James of Grenada.

It’s already the start of a robust rivalry.

Upon his return last August, Merritt was promptly beaten by James at the world championships in South Korea. Merritt was hardly in prime shape then and couldn’t hold off James at the finish.

However, the tables were turned at the Prefontaine Classic two months ago when Merritt passed James with a few meters remaining.

They may meet again in the final on Monday.

As for feeling any added pressure as the defending champion, Seagrave said Merritt wasn’t showing it.

“He’s been focus(ed) on treatment, rehab and training, so there’s been little chance to dwell on any implications of being the defending Olympic champion,” Seagrave wrote.

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