Ullrich may be free, but damage is done

Floyd Landis had a great day this week, and he didn't even need to leave the house. All Landis needed was a computer to be able to read the story out of Madrid, the one in which a Spanish judge concluded that -- whoops! -- world-class rider Jan Ullrich wasn't dirty in the doping scandal in that country, after all.

The news came a little late for the 32-year-old Ullrich, whose inexplicable association with that extensive Civil Guard probe this summer led to him to being held out of the Tour de France. A month later, he was fired from his team. He remains without a sponsor, the 1997 Tour de France champion having lost a competitive season out of his athletic life forever.

Our bad, Jan! Best of luck!

But for Landis, the development may well be a crucial one, in the court of public opinion if nowhere else. If a doping investigation could be that wrong about one of the sport's most recognized riders, who's to say Landis is getting any better treatment?

Granted, the cases aren't the same. Landis is essentially trying to prove a negative, insisting that his 2006 Tour tests that came back hot for banned substances are fatally flawed, and thus untrustworthy. Ullrich, from the available accounts of the judge's finding in the Spanish investigation, is simply a guy whose name was thrown into the probe when it was put together -- and that alone, Ullrich's name being included, was enough for T-Mobile to dump him back in July.

The sponsor's decision was, of course, indicative of the hysteria surrounding the doping question in cycling, and the hair-trigger sensitivity to doping associations to sports in general. It also was (and it really is worth reasserting this here) 100 percent wrong -- assuming the Spanish official's conclusion reported this week is final.

In issuing his finding, the investigative judge for Court 31 in Madrid wrote that Ullrich, who is German, will have "no measures taken against him," this after a series of raids in Spain led the Civil Guard to compile a list of 50 people implicated in the case, including Ullrich and fellow elite rider Ivan Basso. Basso was cleared by Italian authorities on Friday.

It isn't as though the raids came up empty. Authorities said they seized quantities of anabolic steroids from several different addresses, along with more than 100 bags of frozen blood and a bunch of equipment designed to facilitate the transfusion process.

So somebody was up to something, which certainly explains why entities like the International Cycling Union, cycling's governing body, continue to want to track cases and punish offenders -- and why WADA and other international sports agencies are in lockstep with them.

But is the truth being served? For all of the talk about doping in cycling and ways to combat it, it is worth noting that the serially suspected Lance Armstrong never tested positive. Landis, meanwhile, has essentially launched a frontal attack on his test results and the process through which they were devised, taking the extraordinary measure of loading hundreds of documents onto the Internet for all to see and judge. He's out there making his defense in public, just as he was accused (and, in many corners, convicted) in public.

Ullrich and Basso were victimized by a mentality that eschewed the normal, murkier question of guilt or innocence in favor of the more immediate issues of spin control and sponsor investment. (In Ullrich's case, it probably didn't help that he explained a 2002 positive test for amphetamines by saying he had used the drug ecstasy.) Those two riders were removed from their teams mostly because it looks terrible to be implicated in a drug case.

Now Ullrich is being cleared, which must be cold comfort to a man on the far edge of his prime competitive years who has lost a season to scandal. If the result serves anyone, it may just be Landis, if for no other reason than that the Ullrich case makes it abundantly clear, once again, just how slippery the truth can be.

Mark Kreidler's book "Four Days To Glory: Wrestling With the Soul of the American Heartland," will be published by HarperCollins on Jan. 23, 2007, and can be pre-ordered on Amazon.com. A regular contributor to ESPN.com, Kreidler can be reached at mkreidler@sacbee.com.