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Ron Judd, an Olympics junkie and Seattle Times columnist who has covered Olympic sports since 1997, will use this space to serve up news and opinion on the Summer and Winter Games -- also inviting you to chime in on Planet Earth's biggest get-together.

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August 8, 2008 6:21 PM

UCLA lab's due-date error foiled timely notice of Hardy dope test

Posted by Ron Judd

A clerical error at an acclaimed Los Angeles dope-testing lab, combined with a faxed test result that sat unnoticed in a Colorado Springs office over a weekend in late July, probably cost Bremerton swimmer Tara Kirk a spot on the U.S. Olympic team for the Beijing Games.

The test result was the first notification to U.S. Anti-Doping Agency officials that another U.S. swimmer, Jessica Hardy, 21, of Long Beach, had tested positive at the U.S. Olympic Trials July 4 for clenbuterol, a banned anabolic agent.

The report was faxed from a UCLA test lab to USADA's offices sometime "after hours" on July 18, Erin Hannan, USADA's publications and communications director, said Friday. Nobody at USADA saw it until the morning of July 21, at which point Hardy and officials with USA Swimming were immediately notified, she said.

The timing is critical, because July 21 also happened to be USA Swimming's deadline to send a complete Olympic roster to the U.S. Olympic Committee, for submittal to Olympic authorities by July 23. Under current USA Swimming rules, team alternates are not allowed, and replacements to the squad can't be named once the Olympic roster has been submitted.

Adding to the timeline crunch was an error made earlier at the UCLA Olympic Analytical Laboratory, which tested the urine samples from swimmers at last month's U.S. Olympic trials. The sample taken from Hardy July 4 arrived at UCLA on July 5, the lab's director, Dr. Anthony Butch, told The Seattle Times Friday. But when it was logged into the lab's computer, it was mistakenly identified as a regular, rather than "expedited," sample, as requested by swimming officials.

The lab essentially assigned it a due date of approximately two weeks, rather than the seven to 10 days normally assigned as a due date for an expedited sample, he said.

"We dropped the ball, and we missed it," Butch said. "We clearly made the mistake." The Hardy test sample was the only trials sample assigned an incorrect due date, he added.

Procedures have been put in place to ensure that the due-date mistake is not repeated at the lab, which processed some 40,000 samples last year, and was busy with drug-test samples during the runup to the Beijing Games, Butch said.

"Unfortunately, it's a little late now," he said.

But Butch added that no one from USADA or USA Swimming, which, because of tight roster deadlines, had requested expedited samples for all swim trials tests, contacted the lab to inquire about the result as the deadline approached.

"We don't have any documentation that anyone called and said, 'We need to know about any specific specimen,'" he said. "It was just one of those that fell through the cracks, unfortunately."

The timing of the U.S. swim trials, which ended barely a month before the Olympics, left no room for such errors, Butch noted.

That time crunch became a critical issue, one that likely kept Kirk and perhaps two other swimmers from being named to coveted spot on the Olympic team to replace Hardy. USA Swimming, confronted with the positive test result on the same day its roster was submitted, stuck to published rules that called for any vacancies to be filled from within, rather than outside, the named Olympic squad.

In Kirk's case, that meant a swimmer already named to the team -- Rebecca Soni, who finished fourth at the trials in the 100 breaststroke, but also had qualified in the 200 breaststroke -- was named to fill the 100-meter Olympic slot vacated by Hardy, who received a two-year ban for testing positive.

The top two swimmers in each event make the Olympic team. Because she finished one place ahead of Soni, Kirk argued that she should have been named to the Olympic team.

But USA Swimming's rules, which some officials now concede are flawed, precluded that, officials insisted. The test results simply came too late to make Olympic roster changes, they said: Hardy's "A" sample positive was revealed to her, as USADA and the lab now confirm, on July 21; her "B" sample, tested by the UCLA lab at USADA's request the very next day, also was positive.

The revelation of the lab error, and the timing of USADA's reporting of the test, are likely to intensify growing pressure in the swimming community to reform the U.S. swim team's Olympic selection procedures --or at the very least hold the Olympic trials earlier to avoid such mishaps.

Kirk filed claims against USA Swimming on Aug. 4, seeking a place on the Olympic team and possible damages from being left off it. An arbitrator, after a 10-hour hearing, told Kirk she was wronged by the process, but said she could not be granted a spot on the Olympic team because USA Swimming technically did not violate its own selection rules. Kirk's remaining claims for damages remain active, and are expected to be heard by an arbitrator next month.

Kirk, a former Stanford swimmer and 2004 Olympian, said Friday she knew about the fax issue, but not about the lab error. She laments her own self-described "less-than-stellar" performance at the trials, but still feels wronged, she said.

"There were multiple points along this road where USA Swimming, USADA and the (U.S. Olympic Committee) could have acted to prevent this situation ... or make it right once events had swung into motion," she said in an e-mail.

"The one refreshing thing about this is that someone is finally acknowledging their mistake. But it doesn't make up for the loss of my Olympic dreams."

A second swimmer in a similar situation, Lara Jackson, finished third in the trials 50-meter freestyle race in which Hardy finished second. A third swimmer, Amanda Weir, conceivably could make a claim for a spot in the 400-meter freestyle relay, which Hardy also would have swum in Beijing.

Hardy, meanwhile, made her own deal with USADA and a separate arbitration panel. She essentially pled guilty to the positive test, receiving a two-year eligibility ban. But she received permission to return and present more evidence about either tainted nutritional supplements or testing sabotage in a bid to reduce her ineligibility penalty.

Hardy's lawyer, experienced drug-test litigant Howard Jacobs of Los Angeles, told the arbitration panel that Hardy needed more time to complete testing on nutritional supplements she had ingested in July. A followup hearing on her case originally was set for Aug. 4, but delayed to an unknown date.

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www.olympic.org: The official International Olympic Committtee site, with news releases, a searchable Olympic medals database and other archival information.
www.nbcolympics.com: Olympic news site from one of the Games' primary sponsors.
NBC Olympics columnist Alan Abrahamson's column/blog
Chicago Tribune Olympic sports writer Philip Hersh's blog
www.usolympicteam.com: U.S. Olympic Committee's athlete web site.
www.aroundtherings.com: Ed and Sheila Hula's Olympic News Service (subscription).
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www.beijing2008.com: Beijing Organizing Committee Web site.
www.vancouver2010.com: Vancouver Organizing Committee's 2010 Winter Games site.
www.london2012.com: London 2012 Summer Games site.
www.sochi2014.com: Sochi, Russia's 2014 Winter Games site.
www.chicago2016.org: Candidate city Chicago's summer 2016 bid committee site.
Olympic swimmer Tara Kirk's highly entertaining WCSN blog
Bellevue Olympian Scott Macartney's WCSN alpine ski-racing blog
Other WCSN Olympic athlete blogs.