Reigning Olympic sprint champion from Virginia who emerged as a star at the 2008 Summer Games faces a two-year competition ban after testing positive for an anabolic steroid he said he consumed unknowingly in an over-the-counter male enhancement product.
LaShawn Merritt, 23, the 400-meter Olympic gold medal winner in Beijing, on Thursday said he was "deeply sorry" for using a product for "personal reasons" that caused him to flunk three drug tests since last October.
Merritt's heavy-hearted admission earned him an immediate rebuke from Doug Logan, chief executive of USA Track and Field, who has overseen the sport in the United States as it has sought to distance itself from a spate of steroid scandals in the early 2000s. In a scathing statement, Logan said Merritt had brought "shame to himself and his teammates" and become "the object of jokes."
Merritt grew up in Portsmouth, Va., and resides in Suffolk. He electrified the sport with his dominant victory over the favored Jeremy Wariner in the final of the 400 at the Summer Games two summers ago. He also won the 2009 world title in the event.
Merritt announced Thursday that he was withdrawing from competition pending the outcome of the case. Merritt's attorney, Howard Jacobs, said his client tested positive for DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone), a steroid that can be legally sold as a dietary supplement in the United States but which has long been banned in Olympic sports.
"To know that I've tested positive as a result of product that I used for personal reasons is extremely difficult to wrap my hands around," Merritt said in a statement released by Jacobs. "I hope my sponsors, family, friends and the sport itself will forgive me for making such a foolish, immature and egotistical mistake. Any penalty that I may receive for my action will not overshadow the embarrassment and humiliation that I feel inside."
Merritt also urged other athletes to be cautious and "read the fine print" because "if it could happen to me, it could happen to you." Jacobs said he would argue that Merritt's case involved "exceptional circumstances" that would show that he did not demonstrate significant fault or negligence and deserves a reduction in the standard two-year ban.
Merritt had been taking the supplement ExtenZe, according to a source with knowledge of the case who did not wish to publicly name the product. The label of ExtenZe, which claims to be a "sexual enhancement supplement," mentions DHEA and another steroid called pregnenolone as primary ingredients.
Recent history suggests Merritt will be hard-pressed to win his case as anti-doping rules have made it plain for years that athletes are responsible for what they ingest, particularly in cases in which they consume supplements that indicate on their labels that they contain banned substances.
"For Mr. Merritt to claim inadvertent use of a banned substance due to the ingestion of over-the-counter supplements brings shame to himself and his teammates," Logan said. "Thanks to his selfish actions, he has done damage to our efforts to fight the plague of performance-enhancing drugs in our sport."
Travis Tygart, chief executive of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, confirmed Merritt tested positive and accepted a provisional suspension, but identified the substance that caused the positive test only as "testosterone or one of its precursors."
In an e-mail, Jacobs wrote that "the totality of the results make it clear to those with a sufficient scientific knowledge . . . that it was caused by DHEA consumption."
The use of testosterone and some precursors is considered extremely effective in building speed and strength, but DHEA is not considered a useful performance-enhancing product.
Merritt tested positive in out-of-competition tests in October, December and January, and learned of the results in March. His statement claimed the use of the over-the-counter product was "completely unrelated to athletics, and occurred at a time that he was neither seriously training nor competing."
His case likely will take several months to resolve.