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Can hope keep US track alive?

Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt buoys sport at Penn Relays, but steroid scandals drag it down.

Merritt, 23 and a double gold-medalist in Beijing, said he inadvertently ingested a banned substance by using an over-the-counter product without reading the label. In a statement, Merritt asked forgiveness “for making a foolish, immature and egotistical mistake.” And while he immediately accepted the provisional two-year ban from competition, which would put him back on the track in time for the 2012 Olympic season, he said that “any penalty that I may receive for my action will not overshadow the embarrassment and humiliation that I feel inside.”

Through the years accidental ingestion of banned substances contained in over-the-counter products has been a frequent defense for the sport’s scoundrel. But there is some reason to believe that Merritt’s may actually have merit. The Chicago Tribune reported that Merritt was apparently using a male-enhancement product called ExtenZe, a revelation that suggests there will indeed be punishments beyond any racing ban. The product contains a banned substance, DHEA, which, while in a certain class of anabolic steroids, is not regarded as particularly useful in boosting performance, at least on the track.

Credit USA Track & Field CEO Doug Logan for ignoring the traditional path of “wait-and-see” as he greeted the news with unmitigated dismay. He pronounced himself “disgusted” by an episode that “brings shame to [Merritt] and his teammates.” In a prepared statement, 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.” And he noted that Merritt had not only put his career “under a cloud,” but had “made himself the object of jokes.”

The word “joke” certainly resonates because track and field, which has produced as many American Olympic heroes and legends as any sport, has become something of a joke too. The perception in this country is that the sport has been thoroughly dirty for years and that, much as in baseball, the governing bodies did little to combat performance-enhancing drugs and, indeed, were more involved in cover-ups. The perception throughout the world is that there is an epidemic of cheating in the sport and the United States, for all its public sanctimony on the issue, has been at its epicenter.

Logan came to USA Track just two years ago with hopes of fighting the good fight and reversing those perceptions. The Merritt case makes that task all the more difficult. Moreover, it takes one of America’s rising stars out of the game for two years. The anti-doping forces in sport can certainly point to its successes and claim that there is more vigilant and successful enforcement. But more effective policing isn’t quite the same as good news for the sport of track and field.

And that’s why reporters — to a man and woman — have pretty much the same reaction to Bolt’s every star turn. In the first breath, it’s always “wow!” And then quickly follows, “I just hope he’s clean.” Hope in track and field hasn’t been a big winner for years. And Merritt’s actions — regardless of whether they stem from sheer stupidity, callous indifference or cynical cheating — don’t do anything to help keep hope alive.