Jessica Hardy, the California swimmer bounced from the Beijing Olympic team after a positive doping test, got a reduced sentence of sorts from an arbitration panel Monday.

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Jessica Hardy, the California swimmer bounced from the Beijing Olympic team after a positive doping test, got a reduced sentence of sorts from an arbitration panel Monday.

Hardy, who was serving a mandatory two-year suspension while she presented further evidence in her case, convinced the panel (actually, her doping-case-expert attorney, Howard Jacobs, convinced the panel) that the illegal anabolic agent clenbuterol found in her system the week of the U.S. Olympic Trials last July was ingested accidentally, from a nutritional supplement manufactured by AdvoCare — ironically, one of her sponsors.

As a result, her suspension was sliced in half, to one year. Given credit for time served, she’ll be eligible to compete again Aug. 1.

It’s not an unexpected outcome. Hardy had the best attorney money can buy, and evidence presented to the panel indicated her supplements, which she admitted to have been taking since 2007 — in spite of warnings all athletes receive from the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) and others, of this very sort of potential outcome — likely were tainted with at least some level of the substance in question.

On the surface, the judgment seems fair. If she didn’t know she was taking the stuff, it doesn’t seem right to levy the same punishment on her as on substance abusers who diabolically plot to improve their performance through chemistry. (Beneath the surface, it may be less fair, but more on that later.)

But the arbitration ruling raises all sorts of other fascinating questions, not the least of which is whether the talented Hardy, in spite of the decision, will be eligible to swim in the 2012 London Games.

Her suspension leaves her in violation of the new Rule 45 of the Olympic Charter, which decrees that any athlete suspended by any anti-doping agency, for any reason, for more than six months will be ineligible for the Games that follow the end date of his or her suspension, which in Hardy’s case will be July 31.

That would leave Hardy ineligible for the 2012 London Games. Her positive test was taken on July 4, 2008 — three days after the new IOC rule was adopted. Her suspension runs through July, 2009.

Lawyers on the American Arbitration Association panel thus faced a conundrum: The U.S. and World Doping Codes provided for a reduced sentence of only one-half due to exceptional circumstances such as accidental ingestion. But that one year was twice the punishment necessary to keep Hardy out of a second Olympic cycle.

The panel ruled that forcing Hardy to miss two Olympics would be “grossly disproportionate” under the “principles of proportionality.” Their creative solution: Hardy should apply to the IOC, in a case likely to be booted to the international Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in Switzerland, the court of supreme authority in these matters, for a waiver of Rule 45 with regard to doping behavior that they themselves deemed negligent.

If she doesn’t get that waiver, the arbitrators ruled — in the process attempting to claim continued authority over her case until it’s settled at the higher level — they will reconvene at a later date, to further reduce her sentence to, wild guess here, exactly six months, to make sure she’s Olympic eligible.

That’s a pretty severe degree of bending over backwards — the same approach the legal system has seemed to apply to Hardy’s case from the beginning (she was allowed to “withdraw,” recall, from an Olympic team she was automatically suspended from after her positive test.) And it appears to be an attempt by sypmpathetic lawyers to gut the spirit and intent of the new IOC rules — not to mention the national drug cops’ much ballyhooed concept of “strict liability” that they lay out for all emerging athletes.

That term means what it says: Athletes are responsible for what they put in their bodies. Intent doesn’t matter. You can test positive by accident and still see your career go up in flames. It’s happened already to other athletes. But the American Arbitration Association seems ready to literally take on the world to prevent it from happening to hapless victim Jessica Hardy.

Strict liability is a cruel, but ultimately just, taskmaster. After all, if you “accidentally” ingest some performance-enhancing substance, such as clenbuterol or steroids, it’s still going to benefit you on the field of play, right?

Hardy’s attorneys, and her backers, went nuts last summer insisting that her positive test made no sense, and must have been a mistake. She had already competed, and qualified for the Olympic team, by winning the 100-meter breaststroke on July 1, apparently swimming clean. Tests after that event, after all, turned up negative. The positive test came on July 4, after she was already on the team. How could the stuff magically appear in her system only then, and why would she take it after already making the team?

But new evidence presented in the arbritration ruling sheds some new light. It discloses, for the first time publicly, that the same UCLA lab that tested Hardy’s other samples informed USADA on July 23, two days after reporting the initial positive result, that two Hardy samples from July 1 (when she won the 100 breast) and July 6 (when she finished second in the 50 freestyle), initially reported as negative, “actually revealed the presence of ‘suspect clenbuterol transitions.'”

We’ll leave it to the scientists to interpret that. But the fact is, each of her three samples raised flags at the U.S. Olympic Trials.

The strict liability concept was introduced for this very reason. Even athletes who “prove” that they didn’t ingest intentionally shouldn’t get the benefit from whatever they took. And it now appears that Hardy very well may have.

The arbitrators made it clear Hardy did not intend to cheat. Hardy’s case, in fact, is “truly exceptional” in terms of accidental ingestion, according to the ruling. (Hardy said she had insisted on an indemnity agreement with the supplement company, and further claimed that she had consulted an unnamned nutritionist with USA Swimming, and a sports psychologist with the U.S. Olympic Committee, both of whom essentially endorsed her taking the AdvoCare supplements.)

The panel accepted testimony from drug-lab testers who found trace amounts of clenbuterol in lots of AdvoCare samples, although USADA’s attorneys argued that the tests “were not scientifically reliable,” and included insufficent chain-of-custody provisions. They also doubted that the minute levels of clenbuterol could have created the amount found in Hardy’s positive sample.

Ultimately, the panel decreed that Hardy had not taken the substance on purpose, but “there is no doubt that (she acted with ‘fault or negigence’ in committing an anti-doping violation….She took a nutritional supplement which was the cause of her positive doping control result. She took supplements in spite of being aware of the warnings of USADA and despite her hesitation about taking supplements due to the risk of contamination.”

So why is USA Swimming, the American Arbitration Association and everyone else tripping over itself to ensure Hardy — assuming she’s still got the goods, sans her amped-up milkshakes — gets a fair shot at the London Games? Good question.

If you come up with an answer, try running it past Tara Kirk, the Bremerton swimmer who has been demonized by USA Swimming for daring to file her own claim under the Stevens Act that governs American amateur sport in the wake of this fiasco. Kirk, recall, finished third, by a hundredth of a second, behind Megan Jendrick in that 100 breaststroke race won by an apparently (accidentally) juiced Hardy.

Only the top two make the Olympics. In a just world, Kirk would have been moved up, and on to the Beijing Olympic team. But as reported here months ago, USA Swimming, USADA and the UCLA test lab combined to bungle the timing of Swim Trials test results, leaving no time for alternates to be added to the Olympic team to replace Hardy in the four events for which she qualified. (Other members already named to the squad took her place.)

Nobody has bent over backwards to do anything for the now-retired Kirk, beyond urging her to go away. Her legal motion to be added to the squad was denied before the Beijing Games, but her claim that she was damaged by USA Swimming’s negligence in the case remains alive, and will get its own arbitration hearing later this month.

USA Swimming even had the gall to demand that she, a former national team captain and 2002 Olympic medalist, pay its legal fees.

That group, understandably, was falling all over itself to declare the matter closed in a statement Monday. “We are glad that this situation has been resolved,” swimming’s governing body said, adding that Hardy “has served a significant penalty and has taken responsibility for her actions, which were ruled unintentional.”

The group went on to say that “The importance in being diligent in following the anti-doping rules cannot be overstated, and this case should serve as a stern reminder to all athletes to take extreme care with everything they put into their bodies.”

But what kind of thermonuclear mixed message does all this send to the nation’s impressionable young athletes? Don’t use supplements, wink, wink. But if you do (and to be multiple-medal material, you pretty much have to) just make sure you can afford a good attorney, and we’ll be behind you 100 percent?

Prediction: No way the IOC, or CAS, is going to roll over on this one. And they shouldn’t. Doing so would effectively render moot a rule they just put in place for a very good reason: To keep athletes with even the mere taint of doping out of the Games.

In international sporting circles, there’s likely to be even less sympathy for an American athlete testing the rule for the first time, in a precedent-setting way. Especially given the rest of the world’s longstanding disdain for America’s big-talk, little-action approach to doping.

Hardy is no criminal. But she wasn’t very smart, either. Athletes are warned, repeatedly, not to take nutritional supplements, which are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, thus can contain trace amounts of just about anything from clenbuterol to plutonium. Hardy knew it. She even trained at one point with Kicker Vencill, another swimmer who missed out on an Olympics due to positive tests from a tainted supplement.

Vencill sued the manufacturer, and won. But he never got to the Olympics. Hardy is doing the same thing, although the manufacturer has countersued her, claiming innocence. It’ll all take some time to sort all that out. And if staff of the USOC or USA Swimming actually helped her decide to take the stuff, some heads should roll.

Bottom line: Hardy is lucky to even have a chance — slim as it now might be — to swim in the next Olympics. She was warned. Her protestations that “85 to 90 percent” of other elite swimmers use supplements might be true, but that doesn’t change the rules, and everyone knows what they are. Everybody plays with fire. A few get burned.

The sad fact for Hardy is that the IOC put its Rule 45 in place, it would seem, specifically to keep careless — and yes, arguably, unlucky — athletes like her out of the Olympics. And she’s going to ask that organization to waive it to let her in?

Good luck with that.