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For athletes accused of taking drugs, a Perry Mason of their own

Attorney Howard Jacobs, who has defended athletes from Marion Jones to US swimmer Jessica Hardy, believes the system is tilted too much toward antidoping agencies.

By Staff writer / July 28, 2008



Westlake Village, Calif.

On one side is a tsunami of officials, lawyers, law-enforcement agents, scientists, and rules bent on banishing performance-enhancing drugs from sports. On the other side is a man dressed in simple khaki pants and a polo shirt, sitting behind a wooden desk here in this posh Los Angeles suburb.

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Meet Howard Jacobs, perhaps the preeminent US defense lawyer for athletes who have been accused of using illegal drugs. Track stars Marion Jones and Tim Montgomery sought him out when they were accused of doping. So did top US cyclists Tyler Hamilton and since-defrocked 2006 Tour de France champ Floyd Landis, as well as bobsledders, swimmers, and others.

Not surprisingly, Mr. Jacobs has faced a deluge of criticism for standing with them – not least of all from those within the powerful antidoping establishment. To some, he is the equivalent of a mob lawyer – a man who represents people who have cheated the system and, perhaps worse, cheated the world’s youth of the ideals they’re taught about sports and fair play.

But Jacobs, a former triathlete, is resolute. He believes many athletes are unfairly accused of cheating and, once tagged, wear the equivalent of a scarlet letter. He has become a human megaphone for pointing out flaws in a system he sees as tilted toward those who level charges – a job that carries a similar risk.

“If you’re criticizing USADA [the US Anti-Doping Agency], it’s because you’re a doper or you have some financial incentive to do it,” says Jacobs, describing what he says his opponents believe. “Which is ridiculous. It’s as ridiculous as saying you can’t criticize the war on Iraq.”

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The system set up to stem drug use in sports is a complex nexus of international law and athletic values that is carried out by an alphabet-soup of antidoping agencies worldwide. It has its own built-in set of checks and balances. The only problem is, one person’s check doesn’t always meet another person’s sense of balance.

The genesis of much of the antidoping movement was an egregious scandal surrounding the Tour de France in 1998, when one team was caught with a carload of banned drugs. The International Olympic Committee (IOC), already plagued with rumors of drug use in many sports, was galvanized to act. Beginning the next year, numerous policing agencies bubbled up throughout the sporting world – most notably the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).

A joint venture between governments and sporting entities, WADA spent four years fashioning a global antidoping code. All 202 countries in the Olympic movement and 570 sports organizations have signed on. Each year, the agency updates a list of banned substances.

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