The summer that brought a steadily louder drumbeat of doping scandals -- Jason Grimsley in Major League Baseball, Floyd Landis in the Tour de France, Justin Gatlin in track and field, six Carolina Panthers in the NFL -- has ended with a soft thud.
Wednesday night's announcement that Marion Jones tested negative for EPO on her "B" sample has cleared her of using the endurance enhancer.
That development underscores the huge challenges faced by those who police athletic doping, despite the recent spate of high-profile busts and some severe ensuing sanctions -- Landis stripped of his championship, Gatlin suspended for eight years.
The newer performance-enhancing drugs like EPO are tougher than anabolic steroids to detect reliably. Positive test results are more easily challenged, as Jones and her attorneys successfully did.
They are the wave of the doping future.
Nonetheless, while Jones gets a reprieve and the doping police absorb a setback, the drumbeat of drug scandals very likely will resume soon. There are two good reasons for that, according to Gary Wadler, a New York sports doctor and a consultant to the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).
"Doping continues to be more prolific. But, on the flip side, our diligence and detective work is better," he says, noting several specifics:
More sophisticated lab technology has made it harder for athletes to mask certain performance enhancers. Landis and Gatlin, for example, were both nabbed through carbon isotope testing.
Some major enforcers, like the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), have become more aggressive, not just at gathering urine and blood samples but at collecting intelligence allowing them to target suspected dopers.
Some sports leagues and federations, traditional foot-draggers on doping matters, are becoming more vigilant.
"I met recently with World Cup officials, and they're doing a first-rate job," says Wadler. "They're an example of a professional sport that can buy into WADA's anti-doping code."
The summer-long spate of publicity has turned up the heat on other sports to address drugs. Roger Goodell, the NFL's new commissioner, has vowed to revisit his league's drug policy in the wake of the Panthers scandal. (A South Carolina doctor, James Shortt, pleaded guilty to illegally providing steroids and human growth hormone to patients, including six Carolina players, none of whom ever tested positive.)
PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem said this week he'll review whether the tour should have drug testing, after he'd previously asserted his game was clean and didn't need it. Tiger Woods and some other players have come out in favor of testing.
The specter of doping -- and the pressure to do something about it -- affects sports very differently. For track and field, it could be a javelin-sized stake through the heart. Already sparsely followed in America, it could be even more marginalized if seen as a hopelessly dope-drenched sport.
Marion Jones technically was cleared, but she's still inextricably linked with track's drug scandals. Her former husband is shot-putter C.J. Hunter, who served a two-year ban for steroids; and her child's father is sprinter Tim Montgomery, who's currently on doping suspension.
On the other hand, Major League Baseball's popularity has suffered little from the steroids spotlight on Barry Bonds, Rafael Palmeiro, et al. The NFL will have to take many more doping hits before it reaches the red zone of a P.R. crisis.