POSTED: October 27th 2010

JOHN GOODBODY: Should Merritt award mean a personal Olympic truce?

THE JOHN GOODBODY COLUMN / An authoritative and exclusive series from Sports Features Communications

LONDON, Oct 27:  Question one: Will LaShawn Merritt, the American athlete who won the 400 metres at the 2008 Olympics, defend his title in London in 2012? Question two: Should he be allowed to defend his title ?

What is likely to be both a legal and moral controversy over the next 21 months is already being signalled in international sport.

The background first. A year ago, Merritt tested positive on three occasions for an anabolic steroid contained in what he claims was an over-the-counter sexual enhancement product. Last week, he was banned for 21 months, backdated from the time of the original offence.

This is three months fewer than the statutory two years for hormone drugs because he co-operated with officials and because the American Arbitration Association (AAA) accepted that he had not taken the drug to improve his performances – on the track anyway.

Olympic ban

Although he will not be able to run in the Trials for the 2009 world championships, he qualifies anyway because he is the defending champion.The event in South Korea starts on August 27 and his supension will be over the previous month.

However, in 2008, the executive board of the International Olympic Committee ruled that any competitor found guilty of a drugs offence with a suspension of at least six months cannot participate in the next Olympics following the date of the expiry of the ban. It is known as Rule 45 and this applies to Merritt.

However, the AAA also said in its judgement that this was “an additional penalty . . . [and] not an appropriate consequence under the Code” [i.e. the World Anti -Doping Agency to which the IOC is a signatory).

In other words, Merritt was suffering a further punishment for the same offence. Many people are unhappy with the IOC ruling, including Dick Pound, long time IOC member and the founding president of the Wada. If Merritt qualifies for the US team for the Olympics in 2012, you can expect him to take his case to the Court of Arbitration in Sport (CAS).

Varied application

Would he win ? This is debatable, as are most legal points. The IOC will claim that this is a question of eligibility and the CAS has already issued an advisory opinion, stating that this regulation is valid because it is not a ’sanction rule’ but an ‘entry rule’.

It prevents athletes from competing in an event wholly controlled by the IOC. Merritt would, of course, be able to run in all other meetings.

Should be allowed to run ? I don’t think so because he knew or should have known, when he was taking  the drug, inadvertently or not, what the regulations were.  The IOC is trying to stamp out drug-taking and this is a deterrent.

In Britain, the rule is even stricter. Under a bye-law of the British Olympic Association, anyone, who is convicted of a serious drugs offence, can never be a member or official of the team at the Games. Dwain Chambers, the sprinter, missed the Games in 2008 for that reason.

When athletes themselves are asked about suspensions for drug abuse, they are invariably much harsher in their attitude than officials. This should be one of many occasions when officials should listen to the wishes of the competitors and stand firm.

** JOHN GOODBODY covered the 2008 Olympics for The Sunday Times, his 11th successive Summer Games and is the author of the audio book A History of the Olympics, read by Barry Davies, the BBC commentator. He was Sports News Correspondent of The Times 1986-2007, for whom he received journalistic awards in all three decades on the paper, including Sports Reporter of The Year in 2001

Keywords · John Goodbody · IOC · BOA · London 2012 · Merritt · Chambers

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