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Thursday, October 6, 2011
LaShawn Merritt eligible for Games

ESPN.com news services

ATLANTA -- LaShawn Merritt was pessimistic about his chances of coming back to defend his Olympic title in London. The 400-meter champion figured it would be difficult to overturn a doping rule that banned him from the next Summer Games.

When his agent called Thursday morning, he expected the worst.

"I knew the ruling was coming out soon," Merritt said. "I didn't want to pick up."

Today is a good day for me. To be able to go back and defend my title at the Olympic Games, there's nothing better than that.

-- LaShawn Merritt

But the Court of Arbitration for Sport threw out the IOC 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 three-man CAS panel said the rule, known as Rule 45 and adopted in 2008, is "invalid and unenforceable" because it amounts to a second penalty, clearing the way for Merritt and dozens of other athletes around the world -- as many as 50 in track and field alone -- to compete in London.

The USOC challenged the rule and was backed by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency and anti-doping bodies in Britain, Denmark, Norway, New Zealand, Japan and South Africa. The IOC, however, maintained it had the right to decide who is eligible to take part in its Games.

The IOC said Thursday it "fully respects" the CAS verdict and will comply with it. However, the IOC said it would push for the rule to be included in a revised WADA code in 2013.

Merritt completed his 21-month suspension in July after testing positive for a banned substance found in a male-enhancement product. He won silver in his signature event at the world championships in August in South Korea, and also helped the Americans win gold in the 4x400 relay.

LaShawn Merritt
Thursday's court decision opens the door for LaShawn Merritt to defend his 400-meter gold in London and makes several other athletes eligible again for the 2012 Games.

But the IOC rule, had it been upheld, would have prevented him from running at the Olympics.

"Today is a good day for me," Merritt said during a news conference arranged by his agent, Kimberly Holland, at a suite overlooking downtown Atlanta. "To be able to go back and defend my title at the Olympic Games, there's nothing better than that."

Holland first told her client that CAS had ruled against him.

Turns out, she was only kidding.

"It felt like when you're driving and the police pull up behind you. My heart dropped," Merritt said. "I was just laying in bed thinking, 'OK, I've just got to figure something out.' "

Then, she delivered the actual news. The ruling had gone in Merritt's favor.

He was stunned.

"For a couple of minutes, I was kind of in shock," Merritt said. "I got punked, but it's a good kind of punked."

Merritt, who also was the 400-meter world champion in 2009, received a reduced suspension -- the normal ban is two years -- because he cooperated with authorities and was found to not have taken the drug to improve athletic performance.

The 25-year-old Virginia native insisted that he's learned a lot from the embarrassing situation.

"It was a little difficult," Merritt said. "It was a mistake. I was a young man. Mistakes happen. I'm just trying to keep that where it is and focus on moving forward."

Other athletes affected by the ruling, according to CAS, include Brazilian cyclist Flavia Oliveira, Hungarian wrestler Balazs Kiss, U.S. diver Harrison Jones and U.S. hammer thrower Thomas Freeman.

Other athletes affected by the ruling, according to CAS, include Brazilian cyclist Flavia Oliveira, Hungarian wrestler Balazs Kiss, U.S. diver Harrison Jones and U.S. hammer thrower Thomas Freeman.

"We're obviously happy about that," USOC CEO Scott Blackmun told The Associated Press. "LaShawn made an error that he even admitted was a silly error. We're glad he's going to be able to compete."

The verdict against the IOC also opens the door for athletes in Britain to challenge a British Olympic Association rule that bans drug offenders for life from the Games.

Among those affected by the British ban are sprinter Dwain Chambers, a former European 100-meter champion who served a two-year ban in the BALCO scandal, and cyclist David Millar, who also was suspended for two years for use of EPO.

Millar called the CAS ruling a "good thing for future of international sport."

"Only a matter of time till all countries respect WADA Code," he tweeted.

The BOA said it is committed to defending its doping rule, and chairman Colin Moynihan says WADA supports the bylaw that bans athletes who have incurred a doping suspension from representing Britain at the Games.

"It is tough but fair. There is no room for those who knowingly cheat for a place over someone who is clean," Moynihan said. "I will do everything in my power to ensure the eligibility bylaw remains in place."

Moynihan said the BOA would be writing to the IOC for backing.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.