The reason was that WADA's own scientists knew that many cases were unintentional. Athletes, like the general public, were unaware that nutritional supplement makers were selling products contaminated with traces of nandrolone and other banned substances.
Penn State University and a leading expert on drug abuse in sports.
Studies performed by UCLA's Catlin and by researchers at the Cologne lab, then under the International Olympic Committee, showed in 2000 and 2002 that a wide range of nutritional supplements commonly taken by elite athletes were contaminated with nandrolone and other steroids.
Catlin's research, furthermore, made clear that it was not difficult for tests to distinguish a contamination victim from a cheater. His paper noted that an athlete taking nandrolone in a determined effort to cheat would show levels higher than 100,000 nanograms per milliliter, or parts per billion, of urine.
WADA's threshold for a doping violation, however, had been set in single digits: 2 parts per billion for men and 5 for women. It remains at that level today.
And anti-doping officials have continued to bring cases against athletes for positive tests almost certainly derived from contamination or for steroid levels that could not possibly have any performance-enhancing effect.
Irvine swimmer Kicker Vencill, for example, proved through lab tests in 2003 that the supplements he had taken were contaminated, causing his violation. He later sued the supplement maker in state court and won a $578,635 judgment.
Vencill appealed his suspension from international competition, but arbitrators concluded that the unwitting contamination of his multivitamins by the manufacturer did not relieve him of liability for consuming any banned substances.
"The evidence shows that the presence of a prohibited substance in the athlete's urine was caused by his ingestion of a prohibited substance — whether in a vitamin, a supplement or otherwise — for which the athlete bears complete responsibility."
The arbitrators upheld his two-year suspension, agreeing with USADA that he should receive the maximum penalty, "just as in any case of 'intentional doping.' "
"In their opening and closing statements, USADA said they were going to prove me a cheater," said Vencill, recalling his arbitration hearings. "It's a war in there, and you're fighting for your character and your integrity."
Anti-doping officials are unapologetic about the nandrolone cases and officially skeptical of explanations of innocence.
"You've got to hear these things over and over again to understand what a mantra it is," Pound scoffed in an interview. "You've got to say, 'Come on. Get over it. You're filled with nandrolone.' "
But there also are hints of internal disagreement. One of the program's arbitrators agreed with an accused athlete that she had ingested trace amounts of nandrolone unintentionally in adulterated vitamins.
American cyclist Amber Neben had tested positive for a concentration of 6.9 parts per billion of the steroid after a Montreal race, 1.9 over the limit for women — but vastly short of any potential performance-enhancing effect.
Arbitrator Christopher L. Campbell favored imposing no penalty, arguing that the fight against doping should not harm "innocent victims of a poorly regulated vitamin supplement industry."
Campbell was outvoted. By a 2-1 margin, the arbitration panel suspended Neben for six months.