Olympics: Jessica Hardy

LONDON -- A quick look at the action from the London Aquatics Centre on Thursday night:

End of the road

Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte faced off in the 200-meter individual medley in what is almost certainly the last head-to-head meeting in a rivalry that captivated the world. In a thrilling race that lived up to its billing, Phelps won in 1:54.27, 0.63 seconds faster than Lochte, to earn his 16th Olympic gold medal (and 20th overall) and became the first swimmer to win the same individual event in three straight Summer Games.

The pesky breaststroke leg was the key for Phelps, but he out-split Lochte at every turn.

Both men did a double Thursday night. Lochte took bronze in the 200 backstroke and Phelps qualified first in the 100 butterfly semis just a few minutes after the 200 IM medals ceremony. There will almost certainly be a conversation about whether Lochte took on too many events in London, but that shouldn't diminish Phelps' accomplishment.

Phelps admitted to losing considerable motivation after his eight-gold-medal bonanza in Beijing four years ago, and who knows if he would have found that incentive had it not been for Lochte's emergence and superior performances over much of the past couple of seasons. The question now is whether anyone will be able to push Lochte the way Phelps did.

Breakthrough win

Tyler Clary, so long third fiddle to Lochte and Phelps, bested Lochte in the last 50 meters to win the 200 backstroke in an Olympic-record time of 1:53.41, while Lochte faded to third. Clary pointed to the sky after he touched the wall, a tribute to his late club coach in Fullerton, Calif., Kevin Perry.

Rebecca's Soni day

After setting a world record in Wednesday's 200 breaststroke semifinal, two-time defending Olympic champion Rebecca Soni bettered it by 0.41 seconds to become the first woman to repeat in the event.

Best of the rest

For Jessica Hardy, it was almost enough just to be there. Hardy, who was denied the chance to compete four years ago after a tainted supplement led to a positive doping test, didn't even expect to qualify in the 100 freestyle at the U.S. trials (she began her career as a breaststroker), yet she still made the final here and finished eighth. Missy Franklin, meanwhile, came in fifth in an event that is not her strongest. The two U.S. men in the 50 freestyle, Cullen Jones and Anthony Ervin, qualified for Friday night's finals in first and third position, respectively.

Swimmer Jessica Hardy has a clear lane and nothing but flip turns and electronic timers ahead of her in her quest to compete for the U.S. Olympic team next year. She'll get her shot at qualifying in the pool rather than in the quasi-judicial setting of sports jurisprudence, and that's the right call for her and for athletes in general.

The International Olympic Committee ruled this week that Hardy -- the world record holder in the 50- and 100-meter breaststroke events -- is exempt from Rule 45, a new eligibility standard introduced in 2008. The rule bars any athlete who had a doping conviction of six months or longer from competing in the next Olympics. Although the IOC's written decision has not yet been made public, Hardy's lawyer, Howard Jacobs, said the ruling turned on the fact that Rule 45 was implemented three days before Hardy's positive test for clenbuterol in June 2008, making it impossible "for her to have known the rule existed," he said.

Hardy's case was unique from the start. In a rarity, she was able to prove through physical evidence that the source of the clenbuterol was a tainted supplement, and her suspension was reduced from the mandatory two years to one. By contrast, triple Tour de France winner Alberto Contador has claimed his clenbuterol positive test last summer is attributable to contaminated meat, even though he could present only general statistics to support his contention. A favorably disposed Spanish panel exonerated him, a verdict that is being appealed.

As I've pointed out innumerable times, the way anti-doping "justice" is meted out can be outrageously uneven and often depends on the ethics and will of the country and the sport involved. Hardy's case was judged by the standard of strict liability, which the Contador panel ignored.

All athletes who compete in sports governed by the World Anti-Doping Agency code understand they are submitting themselves to that imperfect system. The code is an evolving document that has grown more nuanced over the years -- and it's complicated enough without adding another bureaucratic layer.

Depending on what "the next Olympics" is, an athlete could see a suspension extended anywhere from months to years beyond what (hopefully) thoughtful arbitrators have decided through two rounds of hearings. That constitutes willfully blind double jeopardy that contradicts everything about what is supposed to be a uniform code around the world.

The U.S. Olympic Committee has declined to take a public position on the issue, but its decision to challenge Rule 45 before the Court of Arbitration for Sport speaks for itself. In another development this week, the USOC and IOC announced they are jointly seeking a CAS ruling on the general issue in order to clarify matters for all athletes who could be affected, including 400-meter world champion LaShawn Merritt, the other prominent U.S. athlete who could be barred from racing in London. The decision in Hardy's case -- which she and Jacobs have pursued for months -- has no bearing on Merritt or any other athlete.

Some nations have added their own sanctions to the WADA code. Great Britain imposes lifetime bans from the Olympics for athletes convicted of doping offenses, which is why cyclist David Millar, one of the most publicly penitent and outspoken athletes on the subject, didn't race in 2008 and won't compete in London. That rubs me the wrong way. Not so much because of Millar's conduct since his return, but because I subscribe to the concept of paying one's debt and being done with it. Sure, my feelings are tested by certain egregious cases, but international sport by its very nature should strive for equality across national lines.

Punishment of a first doping offense should be finite and fair. Those who disagree and want longer suspensions or lifetime bans ought to lobby to have the WADA code changed. Until that happens, Rule 45 should go the way of tug-of-war and live pigeon shooting and be booted from the Olympics.