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LaShawn Merritt could be eligible

LaShawn Merritt might be eligible for the 2012 Olympics after all.

On Tuesday, the International Olympic Committee said the defending Olympic champion in the 400 meters would be ineligible for the London Games because of an IOC rule that automatically disqualifies any athlete banned for more than six months.

But the arbitrators who banned him for 21 months refute that. In their decision Monday, they said that because the IOC agrees to follow the world anti-doping code, it must adhere to their decision, which says barring Merritt from the London Games would essentially extend his ban to three years and is not an "appropriate consequence of his anti-doping violation."

Merritt is banned for using a prohibited substance found in an over-the-counter male enhancement product. He was given 21 months instead of the usual two-year suspension because he cooperated with authorities and was found to not have taken the drug to enhance athletic performance.

The suspension ends in July 2011, which would make him eligible to defend his world championship next year. But the IOC rule could prevent him from going for back-to-back Olympic gold in 2012.

In a statement Tuesday, the IOC said each case is different and subject to the relevant legal procedure.

"But the IOC's rules are clear, coming into force just before Beijing in July 2008. The Osaka rule states very clearly that any athlete sanctioned for more than six months will be banned from participation in the next edition of the games," the statement said. "This rule is still valid and applies to all athletes."

In its decision this week, the arbitration panel went so far as to say the IOC, not Merritt, has to appeal the case -- and urged it to do so before the next Olympics get much closer.

Among the possible scenarios from here: Merritt could qualify at Olympic trials, then subsequently be told he's not allowed to compete at the Olympics, which could deprive another athlete the chance to compete for his spot. Or, the U.S. Olympic Committee or USA Track and Field could use the IOC rule as a reason to block Merritt from competing in trials altogether.

"Mr. Merritt should know where he stands in all aspects of his competitive career after the conclusion of this case, which would include appeals," the panel's decision said. "His competitors in the United States should know. USATF and USOC should know. Delaying the final determination ... cheats athletes and sports organizations around the world."

Merritt's attorney, Howard Jacobs, said the arbitration decision "is pretty clear and we will deal with any issues as they come up."

"It seems to me the IOC is saying they have this rule but they recognize there are legal procedures that might come into play on a case-by-case basis," Jacobs said. "I don't really want to start speculating on what they might be in LaShawn's specific case."

USOC spokesman Patrick Sandusky said the federation does not intend to contest the validity of the IOC rule.

When asked about the rule last week, David Howman, general director of the World Anti-Doping Agency, said it was outside the WADA code's jurisdiction.

"Some say it could be double jeopardy. It hasn't been worked through at any hearing yet," Howman said. "Our position is pretty plain. It's not a sanction under the code. But it is an issue that needs to be resolved."

U.S. Anti-Doping Agency CEO Travis Tygart did not immediately respond to messages left by The Associated Press.

USADA asked the IOC to make itself party to the Merritt case but the IOC refused, saying the American Arbitration Association panel, whose services are provided for anti-doping cases involving U.S. athletes and USADA, did not have jurisdiction to make a decision about an IOC rule.

The arbitrators disagreed, and said the world anti-doping code gives the IOC the right to appeal their decision at the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

Merritt faces a similar scenario as American swimmer Jessica Hardy, who was forced out of the 2008 Olympics after testing positive for clenbuterol. She was found to have unknowingly taken the banned agent in a contaminated food supplement and her two-year suspension was reduced to one.

The IOC rule would bar her from the London Games, as well, and her status also remains in limbo.