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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.

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Yet defenders of the system dismiss Jacobs’s complaints. After years of unchecked drug abuse, they’ve finally secured a modest foothold from which to clean up sports. Accused athletes are not their priority. Besides, some of the US justice-system safeguards that Jacobs touts don’t apply to international cases, they argue.

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“Americans are kind of nutty,” says Jan Paulsson, a Paris-based lawyer and veteran CAS arbitrator. “I hear this all the time: ‘The system doesn’t have this, it doesn’t have that.’ Hold on – you’re the only people in the world who have it.”

Travis Tygart, head of the USADA, defends antidoping arbitration as a balance between efficiency and truth, designed to prevent “fishing expeditions” – defense lawyers drawing out hearings at great expense. “I have a lot of respect for Howard. He’s a fierce advocate,” says Mr. Tygart, who, growing up in Jacksonville, Fla., competed on the same swim team as Jacobs. “His job is just entirely different – using smoke and mirrors to get athletes off, whereas ours is a search for the truth to protect clean athletes.”

•••

If it weren’t for serendipity, Jacobs might be working for Tygart today – having sought a job in 2000 with the newly formed USADA. But the slots were filled, and the agency suggested he try defending athletes to gain experience.

So in 2002, Jacobs represented a bobsledder who tested positive for nandrolone at the Salt Lake Olympics. Though the athlete was banned for two years, Jacobs helped him win a case against a supplement company whose contaminated product, he proved, caused the test results.

“It struck me that not all cases were intentional doping cases,” says Jacobs. “It seemed to me it’d be interesting to do – maybe as a very small part of my practice.” Today, he bills himself as one of the few defense lawyers specializing in the field. Over the years, he has tried to beef up his knowledge of the science of doping, even reading technical journals over breakfast.

Still, at one point, he nearly gave it all up. Just before the press conference on Lund’s ejection from Torino, Jacobs received a verdict on another client – Mr. Hamilton, the cyclist. The two had spent 18 months shuttling around the world to prove his innocence, even uncovering e-mails from the test’s originator questioning its integrity. Jacobs was sure he had it wrapped up. Then came the fax: Guilty as charged. Crushed, Jacobs called his wife in the US. “I don’t know if this is worth doing anymore,” he said.

But ultimately he decided it would be a disservice to athletes to walk away. “There’s no one else that’s really developed an expertise to the extent that I have,” he says.

Ous Mellouli, a Tunisian swimmer who tested positive for amphetamines in 2006, is undoubtedly glad about that. With the help of Jacobs, who attributes the test results to taking a friend’s ADD medicine to study for a test, the usual two-year ban was reduced, enabling him to go to Beijing as a medal favorite. “Occasionally,” says Jacobs, “you get a result like that that makes you realize it’s worth it.”

• The last installment in this series runs Aug. 4. The first two parts ran July 14 and July 21.

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