LaShawn Merritt: the doping game keeps changing
When reports surfaced last year that 2008 Olympic 400-metre champion LaShawn Merritt flunked a drug test over his use of the over-the-counter sex enhancer Extenze, how else were we supposed to react except with a flood of junior high school jokes?
Like Merritt took Extenze so he could run longer and harder than everybody else.
Or that he took the supplement to deal with stiff competition.
Or that he’s a giant prick for cheating in the first place.
Juvenile, I know, but sometimes you have to crack yourself up.
Or you just wait for Merritt to do it, especially when he professes shock at a positive test caused by his use of a supplement that purports to make your penis bigger and more potent.
“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,” he said.
I would think an Olympic gold medalist on Extenze wouldn’t have to wrap his own hands around anything, but I digress.
And before you rip me for making light of a medical condition that afflicts millions of North American men understand that I’m skeptical of Merritt’s claims, but we’ll explore that later.
Right now there’s news.
Even though Merritt is eligible to resume competing in July 2011, the International Olympic Committee announced Wednesday morning it would exercise its right to exclude him from the 2012 Summer Games in London.
If sanctioning an athlete who has already served his suspension doesn’t sound fair to you, it’s because on some level it isn’t. Merritt’s positive test earned him a two-year suspension, not an indefinite ban. After he serves his time he should be free to compete at whatever meet will accept him.
But that’s where the doping game and people’s reaction have changed in the 20 years since Ben Johnson made his comeback from the doping suspension he earned when his historic run in Seoul was nullified by a positive test.
When Johnson was able to return to the circuit fans were curious and meet directors willing to sign him him up for the boost in attention and attendance he brought them.
But 20 years and countless positive tests later sports fans’ reactions to dopers — redeemed or otherwise — range from bitter to indifferent, depending on how deeply treasoned we feel by the athlete’s cheating.
And while competing post suspension is the athlete’s right, competing at any specific track meet is a privilege bestowed and withheld by the meet’s organizers. That’s why we see very little of former BALCO guinea pig sprinter Dwain Chambers outside open events like the U.K.’s championship.
And it’s why you won’t see Merritt in London in 2012.
Yes, a post-suspension Johnson competed for Canada in the 1992 games in Barcelona, but that was before the IOC adopted the rule authorizing them to shut out any competitor who has served a suspension longer than six months.
The doping game has changed and is changing still, as evidenced by Merritt’s use of Extenze to treat a “personal problem.”
If any of us ever pretended Merritt was using this drug to treat this problem, let’s stop now.
In October 2009 GQ chronicled the fast fame and hard fall of Steve Wershak, who concocted the pioneering “male enhancement” supplement, Enzyte. Somewhere, the story explains that the concoction isn’t all that special or even specialized. It’s more like a potpourri of herbs and minerals either known or thought to increase testosterone, which boosts both sex drive and muscle mass.
So take a male enhancement supplement for sexual issues you’ll probably experience some pleasant anabolic side effects, but that cause-and-effect has a flip side.
You can take those supplements for the gains in strength an muscle and consider the sexual enhancement an ancillary benefit.
Anybody want to guess which line of reasoning led Merritt to purchase his first bottle of Extenze?
The same reasoning that got more than 100 baseball players diagnosed with ADHD in recent years. When Major League Baseball ruled that drugs like Ritalin were unless a player was a diagnosed ADHD sufferer the number of players with ADHD diagnoses seeking permission to use Ritalin skyrocketed, with eight percent of MLB receiving exemptions. So either an epidemic of adult-onset ADHD hit pro baseball, or players found a convenient way to circumvent doping rules.
Merritt, it seems, was trying to do the same, even though he should have known his strategy was shot through with risk.
Ever wonder why instead of rubbing a tonic into his scalp LeBron James fiddles with increasingly wide headbands to disguise encroaching baldness?
Because he realizes Rogaine and friends will get you banned for doping.
Still, Merritt figured that by popping a male enhancement pill for a “personal reason” he could reap the benefits of taking steroids without actually taking steroids. Except that if he he had ever read an Extenze label he’d have realized that these “natural enhancers” often contain… steroids.
So his positive test shouldn’t have surprised him the way it did, and while he was smart to serve his suspension quickly (instead of appealing) and return to action as soon as possible, the only way he gets into London’s Olympic stadium next summer is with a ticket.
It might be a little unfair given that Merritt will be a year beyond his suspension by then, but a generation after Ben Johnson the doping game has changed.