LaShawn Merritt: ‘Losing only makes you stronger’

DAEGU, South Korea — At the top of the stretch, it seemed that LaShawn Merritt, America’s best 400-meter sprinter, had scripted the perfect coda to the bizarre saga of his lengthy suspension for taking a — no easy way around this — male-enhancement product two years ago.

After roaring through the prelims and the semifinals, he had rounded the final curve and was in the lead; 100 more meters and victory would be his.

Alas, they don’t write storybook tales quite like they used to — not when there’s litigation still ongoing, and Merritt’s status for next year’s Olympics is still in doubt, and the International Olympic Committee is bound and determined to keep him out of the London Games, even though Merritt is a nice guy and made a dumb mistake by going to a 7-Eleven and buying a product called ExtenZe and has paid for this mistake a thousand times over already in shame and embarrassment.

He deserves better, and so much of it could have all been wiped away if — if, if, if — he could have held on down the stretch on a perfect Tuesday night in Daegu, a night made for redemption.

Instead, Kirani James of Grenada, a two-time NCAA champion at the University of Alabama who turns 19 on Thursday, caught Merritt with about three meters to go, then passed him.

James finished first in a personal-best 44.60.

Merritt took second in 44.63.

Belgium’s Kevin Borlee finished third, in 44.90.

James is the third-youngest male champion at the worlds; the youngest 400 winner; the first-ever medalist from Grenada.

“I don’t need to be the Usain Bolt of the 400 meters,” James said later when a reporter asked about the Jamaican superstar, as if that was somehow a natural comparison for everyone from a Caribbean island. “I’m happy to be Kirani James of Grenada.”

Merritt said he wasn’t quite sure why his gold turned silver at the last moment. “Just mechanical issues,” he said. “I was focused on the finish line. Like I said, I didn’t quite execute the way I wanted to. The 400 is all about execution. I came in with a game plan. Didn’t quite stick to it. Not quite sure what went wrong throughout the race.”

Merritt’s immediate future now brings him the 1600 relay, later in this meet. Over that he can exert a measure of control.

Beyond that — his fate is considerably more uncertain.

Merritt’s suspension for taking ExtenZe ran to 21 months. It ended in July.

An IOC rule that took effect in 2008 purports to prevent athletes who receive doping bans of more than six months from competing at the next Summer or Winter Games.

The U.S. Olympic Committee’s position, on Merritt’s behalf, is that the “six-month rule,” as it is widely known, amounts to double jeopardy — a second penalty for a single offense.

The IOC has been resolute. It’s their Games, they say, and they should have the right to decide who gets to take part. “The position of the IOC is very clear,” president Jacques Rogge said at a news conference here a couple days ago. “For us, it is not a matter of sanction. It is a matter of eligibility.”

Sport’s top tribunal, the Swiss-based Court of Arbitration for Sport, after a hearing on the matter in August, said it intends to issue a verdict next month.

If CAS rules in Merritt’s favor, the path to the Games is clear — win, place or show at the U.S. Trials, just like normal.

If CAS rules against him, he’s out — even though he’s the 2008 Beijing 400 champion, the 2009 world champion and, now, the 2011 silver medalist.

Training by himself for all these past months, Merritt said as he worked here through the rounds, had been arduous and lonely. Talk about punishment.

Sometimes, he said, he had others to train with but, mostly, he had been alone, putting himself through the physical grind and, more demanding yet, the mental discipline of asking himself — how bad did he want it? He did time trial after time trial after time trial. He did extra stretching.

If he had been four-hundredths of a second faster, this story would have a different ending.

It was not to be.

“Nobody has a perfect season,” LaShawn Merritt said, and here was newfound maturity and experience talking. “Losing only makes you stronger.”

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