He was the Olympic and world champ. He was on vacation. It’s little wonder that he was in the mood. Late one October evening in 2009, after a few hours of nightclub fun with his girlfriend, LaShawn Merritt walked into a 7-11 near his Portsmouth, Va., home. Merritt, the best 400-m sprinter on the globe, was there to pick up some condoms: the festivities would be adjourning to the bedroom.
On this particular night, however, Merritt spotted a pack of ExtenZe, an over the counter sexual enhancement drug. He had seen a few commercials for the pill—former Dallas Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson is a pitchman—and figured the pills could provide a little extra energy. After all, what did he have to lose? “There wasn’t a whole lot of thinking that went into it,” says Merritt now, during a day off from training at the IMG Academies in Bradenton, Fla. “It was like you go into a store, you grab a drink, you grab some chips.”
Merritt lets out quick guffaw, high-pitched and boyish. He’s lucky he can laugh about that decision now, because it almost cost him his career. Much to Merritt’s surprise, ExtenZe contains dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), a steroid hormone banned under the world anti-doping code. Merritt later tested positive for DHEA; it took him weeks to figure out what caused the test, and when he finally discovered ExtenZe was responsible, he was crushed and mortified. He faced a lengthy suspension and an Olympic ban, and was caught in a humiliating Catch-22. People who believed Merritt’s excuse for the positive test were now familiar with his private business, and enjoyed a good snicker. Those who didn’t buy it laughed off what seemed like a desperate cover story. Either way Merritt was now a punch line—and his career was in ruins.
Despite those hurdles, however, Merritt managed to restore his reputation—for running, at least—with the help of a miracle witness. In doing so he took on one of the most powerful, stubborn, and often arrogant organizations in the world—the International Olympic Committee (IOC)—and fought a rule designed to keep him out of the London Olympics. He won, allowing him to defend his Beijing gold, and will attempt to join the legendary Michael Johnson as the only sprinter to win back-to-back Olympic 400 m races.
Merritt is favored to win in London. He hasn’t lost a 400-m race all season. Who knows, he might break a world record for good measure. Still, by just making it to the Olympics—by fighting through the torment that a $6 pop of a sex pill brought upon him—LaShawn Merritt has already beat the longest odds of his career.
The Road to Beijing
Merritt grew up in Portsmouth, near Norfolk: the area is known for producing gifted athletes. NFL Hall of Famer Bruce Smith, former NBA MVP Allen Iverson, Michael Vick and baseball’s Upton brothers, for example, all hail from the region. A crucial challenge for these young stars is steering clear of gangs and drugs. “A lot of the kids in that area I grew up with, the talent was there, they didn’t stay on course,” Merritt says. “A lot of them went to jail, a lot of them passed away, a lot of them aren’t doing anything. I am one of the fortunate ones.”
They didn’t. All their lives, Olympians are told that if they win a gold medal, good fortune will follow. For Merritt, though, the months following his Beijing triumph were a letdown. For one, the world economy collapsed almost immediately following the Beijing closing ceremonies. Companies struggling to survive were not eager to hand out cash to any new endorsers. Second, Usain Bolt’s world records and lighting-bolt poses overshadowed all the other runners. The Jamaican was the only true breakout track star of the games. “It wasn’t really what I thought it would be,” says Merritt.
By 2009, however, Merritt’s future looked brighter. He pulled off an undefeated season, winning the world championship that August in Berlin. By October, he was ready to relax. He hadn’t had a real break in two years. He went on a cruise. He hung out in South Beach. The economy was recovering, so Kimberly Holland, his agent, prepared to pitch endorsers. Merritt is dashing, on the track and off. Who wouldn’t want him on their roster?
Then, Merritt picked up a pack of ExtenZe from a 7-11. He had celebrated too much.
Fight of His Life
After finding out about the DHEA in his system in March of 2010, Merritt was confused. He figured it must be a mistake. Merritt dismantled his medicine cabinet, trying to figure out what caused the three positive tests. (He had tested positive for DHEA in October, December, and early January, while he was using ExtenZe.) “I’m looking at the back of everything—toothpaste, mouthwash, facewash,” Merritt says. He visited his barber, in case any of his sprays or creams contained the banned substance. Of course they didn’t. Has any athlete ever tested positive for a haircut?
Merritt was grasping for any answer. Then he found it, in April, on another fateful trip to 7-11. Merritt walked up and down the aisles, checking the back of a condom box, checking the labeling on a bottle of Red Bull. (No chance there—if Red Bull was flush with steroids, most runners would be banned. They love the stuff). He grabbed a pack of ExtenZe. It might as well have been a grenade. “I look on the back, and the first thing I see”—Merritt’s hand bangs a table—“is DHEA.” Merritt still blushes at the memory. “I said, ‘oh my goodness,’” Merritt says. “I was like, dude, this is unbelievable.’”
He texted Holland, his agent, too embarrassed to talk to her. Merritt hinted that something sexual had caused the positive test. Holland, craving an explanation, finally tracked Merritt down on the phone. He broke into tears as he finally told her. Merritt told Holland said he didn’t want to live. “I had never heard him this way,” Holland says. “He was broken. Broken in half.” Holland quipped that at least he had used a performance-enhancing drug in the bedroom, and not on the track. That got a chuckle out of him.
Such laughs were rare. The offense carried a two-year ban. Furthermore, in 2008 the IOC had passed a rule that prohibited any athlete who received a subsequent doping ban of more than six months from competing in the next Olympics, which meant that Merritt wouldn’t be able to defend his gold in London. The Olympics were his best chance for the stardom he craved—and now it was being taken away from him.
As a first line of defense, Merritt decided to publicly admit his misstep. “I hope my sponsors, family, friends and the sport itself will forgive me for making such a foolish, immature, and egotistical mistake,” Merritt said in a statement. Then, Doug Logan, CEO at the time of U.S.A. Track and Field (USATF), released a statement of his own. “For Mr. Merritt to claim inadvertent use of a banned substance due to the indigestion of over-the-counter supplements brings shame to himself and his teammates … Personally, I am disgusted.” Logan could have saved time by just spitting on Merritt’s mea culpa. “We never talked,” Merritt says now. “It was never, ok, let me call this guy and see what really happened. It ripped me apart.”
Logan, whom the U.S.A Track And Field board fired five months later, says that at the time, he believed Merritt’s excuse that he took a sexual performance drug. He was just appalled that Merritt was so careless. Even so, Merritt would only have an even harder time clearing his name. But as ludicrous as the ExtenZe excuse sounds when you first hear it, the embarrassing nature of the defense, in a way, made Merritt more believable. With a million other excuses available, why pick one that ridicules your manhood? “You’d have to be a fool to publicly announce that if it wasn’t true,” says Travis Tygart, head of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA). “On the other hand, you don’t rely on the denial.”
So USADA pushed for the two-year suspension. Merritt appealed, and the case wound up before the American Arbitration Association in July. It was clear that ExtenZe could have caused the positive test, but since Merritt had no receipts to prove he had purchased it, he needed to find a third-party witness who had spotted him picking up the pill. He could try to find a 7-11 employee, but these workers sell Slurpees and hot dogs and condoms and ExtenZe and hundreds of different things to hundreds of different people each night. Who would remember Merritt? After all, he’s no Usain Bolt.
Still, Merritt and his then-coach, Dwayne Miller, tried to hunt someone down. They hit the jackpot. At a 7-11 near his house, Miller asked a clerk if she remembered Merritt buying ExtenZe. She said she did, not because Merritt was some fancy Olympic champion. She remembered his habits. He’d come into the store and buy a lottery ticket —”tough economy,” Merritt says—and some juice. A few hours later, he’d return for the condoms and ExtenZe. She found that funny enough to be memorable. The woman, Leslie James, agreed to testify at the arbitration hearing. It wasn’t an easy experience for Merritt—his mother and aunt left the room while the sprinter was asked questions about his sex life and ExtenZe. But it was worth it. “In the Panel’s opinion, Ms. James’ testimony was devastatingly convincing,” the arbitrators wrote. The panel, and even USADA, acknowledged that Merritt was telling the truth. “I hugged her afterwards,” says Merritt of the clerk. “And said, ‘thank you for everything and the whole nine.’”
You could no longer label Merritt a drug cheat. Still, he faced a suspension for stupidity. As a pro track athlete, Merritt is ultimately responsible for whatever he puts into his body. To take any over-the-counter medication or supplement or pill, no matter what its function, without checking the contents was an egregious error. “We educate our athletes enough to know that those types of products are risky,” says Tygart. The arbitrator reduced Merritt’s suspension to 21 months, and backdated it to the date of his first positive test, in October 2009. This would allow Merritt to return in time for the August 2011 world championships. But it wouldn’t put money in his pocket during the suspension. Nike, Merritt’s shoe sponsor, was off the hook while he was out. The arbitrator said that after Merritt served his suspension, he’d eligible for the Olympics. But since the ban still exceeded six months, would the notoriously fickle IOC feel the same way?
(MORE: 50 Olympic Athletes To Watch)
Merritt trained hard during his suspension, but it was a disorienting time. Ever since he turned pro at 19, Merritt had been accustomed to running races, collecting checks and living a comfortable lifestyle. Now, anxious about running out of cash, he’d cook pasta that could last a couple of days. “It got that low,” Merritt says. “To the point where I didn’t know my next move.” He’d call up Holland, antsy, insisting they had to do something. Maybe he should give football a try. Holland would talk him down. She’d urge him to just stay patient and train. If he came back and still dominated like they knew he could, everything would work out. But Merritt couldn’t be calmed. He’d call back an hour later, running through the same questions. “He had a breakdown,” Holland admits. “It got to the point where I would just say ‘whatever you want to do, do it.’”
Still, Merritt returned to the track in top form. In a preliminary heat at the 2011 Worlds, he clocked the fastest time of the year. (In the final, Kirani James, the teenage sensation from Grenada, caught him). Meanwhile, his legal team was preparing to fight the IOC’s “Rule 45,”, arguing that the IOC’s Olympic ban for dopers who have already served their suspensions was essentially double jeopardy: two punishments for the same offense. The case went to the highest possible level, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in Switzerland. But Merritt doubted he’d prevail against a powerful organization looking to take a hard line against drug users. “I was just the LaShawn guy,” he says.
In October 2011, almost two years after his initial positive drug test, Merritt was awakened by a phone call. Holland, Holland’s sister Christina Sauls and Merritt’s lawyer, Howard Jacobs, were on the other line. They told him the CAS upheld the IOC rule, that he was banned from the London Games. His heart fell to the floor. “You know when the police pull behind you, and you see the cop—that’s how my heart felt,” Merritt says. But he took the news in stride, telling the group he just needed to figure out his next step. Then Holland instructed him to peek outside his window and look for actor Ashton Kutcher. “I’m like, Ashton Kutcher?” Merritt says. “What is she talking about? Like, I’m thinking about not being able to run in the Olympics.” Holland was making a reference to Punk’d, Kutcher’s old practical joke show on MTV. Finally, Sauls could no longer contain herself: “They are going to let you run!” she screamed.
“Punking” Merritt was just cruel, right? “That was Kimberly’s idea,” Jacobs says with a laugh. “She took it further than I would have.”
Merritt did some celebratory sprinting around his house. CAS, indeed, said that the IOC rule banning dopers from the Games constituted a second disciplinary sanction for a drug offense under the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) code, thus violating the code. This was a landmark decision that had ramifications that went well beyond Merritt’s case, clearing the way for some 50 track and field athletes from around the world who would have been banned to try to qualify for London. All of those athletes should have hugged that 7-11 clerk too.
Merritt knows he’ll never shake the ExtenZe episode, that the giggles—and the lingering suspicion—will always trail him around the track. “One of the first things I told LaShwan was, ‘you’re going to take this to the grave with you,’” Holland says. “’And people will continue to talk about it after you’re there. ’” Merritt still goes to 7-11. But, he says, “I stay away from that aisle.” When asked if he’d ever take any kind of bedroom performance-enhancer again, the Merritt’s high-pitched laugh returns. “No way,” he says. “Nothing. Man, if I do it would be way after track and field. Way later on, when I’m not an athlete, when I’m just a regular human being.”
By then, Merritt might be a back-to-back Olympic gold medalist and a man redeemed. Attention Pfizer—you could do worse for a Viagra pitchman.