‘Now I draw strength from it’

We live in cynical sporting times. We believe almost every athlete is taking a banned substance of some sort, to the point that accusations and positive tests produce apathy not outrage.

Marion Jones, Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Lance Armstrong, Shawne Merriman, Ryan Braun and on and on have taken a toll. What we suspect and what we can prove, leaked reports and show trials, fervent denials and plausible deniability all have combined for drug-cheat fatigue.

The details of Olympic swimmer Jessica Hardy’s doping story are hardly original and possibly boring as a result.

The short and dirty version: Girl tests positive. Girl loses everything. Girl seeks redemption.

Hardy’s story is at the very heart of what is wrong with our national drug dialogue on every level from steroids in sports to crack and meth on our streets. It is a study of the problem with black-and-white judgments, mandatory sentencing and false outrage. It is what happens when, in an effort to fight a war on drugs, we ignore the circumstances of the individual case.

The not-so-short and very dirty version is important. Here it is: Hardy tested positive for a banned substance before the 2008 Olympics and was suspended from competing for two years. She said she was clean. An American arbitration panel kind of agreed, concluding Hardy had been a victim of a tainted nutritional supplement and reducing her punishment to a year in 2009.

Then the World Anti-Doping Agency appealed to get that extra year tacked back on. And failed. Then Hardy fought to be eligible for the 2012 Olympic Games despite newly enacted Rule 45, which says an athlete who is suspended for more than six months for a doping violation is banned from the next Olympics.

The US Olympics Committee relented. On a technicality.

So Hardy is preparing for the US Olympic Trials in Omaha, Neb., and is a favorite to qualify for the 2012 Games in London in the 100-meter breaststroke and freestyle sprints while trying to escape the cloud all of this created.

“There was a time when I was angry and depressed about what happened,” Hardy told reporters while in Dallas for the US Olympic summit. “Being guilty until you can prove yourself innocent is a very difficult situation to be in. It’s taxing mentally, physically and financially. But now I draw strength from it. I’m grateful that I get this chance again, and I know I’m tougher than I thought I was.”

Here is truth about Hardy: Innocent is not the right phrasing. This was not some he said-she said, ‘I saved your dirty syringes’ argument. There was a positive test. Nobody disputes it. What Hardy disputes was the intent to cheat. She says the supplement company gave her a tainted supplement. They strongly disagreed. So when the arbitrator agreed with Hardy, did she get an apology?

“No.”

The firm sticks to their guns?

“Yes.”

Is that frustrating?

“Yeah,” she said. “I am not getting caught up in it. I am just happy to have it over with.”

Let’s agree for a second that the arbitration panel was right, and Hardy accidentally took a tainted supplement and had no intention to gain a competitive advantage. Is she still ultimately responsible for what goes into her body? Yes.

Should she be treated and viewed in the same way as Marion Jones? I do not think so.

Individual circumstances have to matter. Intent has to matter. The IOC has been so shamed by their soft stance on drug cheats that they have gone the other way. The problem is it leaves no room for the honest mistake.

“It was extremely difficult and (an) extreme burden,” Hardy said. “But I proved that being a clean athlete, being innocent, you have to stick to your guns and stand up for yourself and not just get dozed over. Athletes who have been in my position before, and will be afterwards, need to have a way to speak, a way to stand up for themselves.”

Here is the other truth about Hardy: She has a chance for London because her step-dad is a really smart lawyer, and her parents had funds to help in her defense. Her step-dad knew how to navigate the system. Hardy was not left alone to the fight.

“I think if I didn’t have the stars lined up exactly how they were, I wouldn’t have survived,” Hardy said. “I am really lucky. I am lucky.”

It is not unlike the war on drugs in America where the severity of the punishment is directly proportional to the income of the defendant. It is why crack cocaine offenses usually lead to bigger punishment than, say, cocaine.

It is the same with the Olympic war on performance-enhancing drugs. There are some who test positive who do not have the support system in place to be able to fight the system. Those people do not get a chance to rewrite their story.

Hardy does.

Yes, this is just another case of girl tests positive, girl loses everything, girl seeks redemption. It is also Hardy’s unique story, which deserves to be heard on its merits.