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Hamstring injury ends American LaShawn Merritt's bid to defend Olympic title in men's 400 meters

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LONDON – The U.S. track team suffered its first significant injury on Saturday morning when defending Olympic gold medal 400-meters champion LaShawn Merritt suffered a hamstring injury in his qualifying heat and pulled up in the event.

He is out of the 400 meters and likely the 4x400 relay.

[ Photos: LaShawn Merritt hurt during 400 ]

"Around the curve I started to feel it," Merritt said. "I started to move a bit more and I still felt it. I thought if I pushed it, I can really injure myself. … I need some rest."

The 26-year-old Merritt appeared to be pacing himself early in the race and developed a noticeable hitch in his stride before reaching the midway point of the race. He faded on the backstretch and pulled up in obvious pain. He didn't finish the race, grabbing his hamstring and limping to U.S. trainers with a crestfallen look on his face.

"It's very disappointing," Merritt said. "I'll regroup. It's not the end of the world. The Olympics will come around again. Next year is a world championship. It's just a matter of getting healthy."

The fastest man in the world this year in the 400, Merritt suffered a left-thigh injury while training in Monaco on July 30 and had been keeping the leg wrapped to guard against the London chill. But in only the first few strides of his heat, it was clear he was not at full strength. The injury could also jeopardize the United States' 4x400 team, as Merritt was expected to run for the team that is defending Olympic gold.

[ Video: Will Usain Bolt win the 100-meter race? ]

Merritt stopped short of saying he would be out of the relay, but he didn't appear to be optimistic, saying he would have to see how the hamstring responds in the coming days. The 4x400 final is scheduled for Friday night.

It's a tough blow to Merritt's hopes of recapturing his magic at the 2008 Beijing Games, where he won gold in the 400 meters and 4x400 relay. That glory was short-lived as he was banned in April of 2010 for failing three drug tests and forced to serve a 21-month suspension. Merritt said the positive tests were due to a banned steroid in an over-the-counter male enhancement product he had been taking.

Upon his return to the track, he quickly regained his form in 2011, finishing second in the world championships in the 400, only three-hundredths of a second behind Grenada's Kirani James.

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