On Monday, what was a major investigation into doping in cycling came to an anticlimactic end for those anticipating a strong legal stance against alleged cheats. Judge Antonio Serrano ruled that he could not charge anyone because Spain's doping law did not exist when the case, dubbed Operation Puerto, broke last May.
Though admitting doping took place and calling it a lack of "fair play," Serrano said that without evidence that it harmed the riders' health, Spanish law at the time of the charges couldn't prosecute them.
A new law, which took effect last month, makes it illegal to prescribe, dispense or aid in the use of blood doping (increasing the ability of red blood cells to hold oxygen, thereby delivering more energy to a person).
Many of the riders originally named in the investigation weren't charged -- the actual defendants were mostly doctors and team staff -- but it still affected many reputations and careers. Most notably, former Tour de France champion Jan Ullrich dropped out of last year?s race and recently retired from cycling due to the allegations.
The ruling, while an embarrassment for the investigators, can be appealed in Spanish courts. Tour de France director Christian Prudhomme said, "These people were caught red-handed and it is inconceivable that they return to the world of cycling. I cannot imagine that the International Cycling Union (UCI) will let them return."
It remains to be seen how this ruling will affect cycling from here on out. It's been announced that the UCI will continue its investigation. In the meantime, how does this affect the riders and teams who were initially connected to Puerto?
While Ivan Basso, who dropped out of last year's Tour after being implicated, raced last month in the Tour of California for the Discovery Channel team, other teams had to disband as sponsors pulled out.
Perhaps this case will serve as a lesson to countries and governing bodies of sports. Doping and steroid policies are only as strong as their laws and punishments. It's one thing to embarrass an athlete, but as we've seen in everything from Olympic track and field to Major League Baseball, that?s not enough to make the problem of cheating go away.