The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency's decision Monday to notify four U.S. athletes of possible drug violations despite the lack of positive drug tests is likely to result in a summer fraught with legal battles.

USADA has said it would like to conclude its cases involving Tim Montgomery, Chryste Gaines, Michelle Collins and Alvin Harrison before the July 9-18 track and field trials, which will determine the U.S. Olympic team.

USADA's adjudication process is designed to run its course within 40 days, and USADA officials indicated in their letters to the athletes that they intend to expedite hearings -- should they decide to press forward with formal charges -- to accommodate the start of the trials.

Delays could come, however, if athletes choose to circumvent the arbitration process prescribed in USADA's bylaws by bringing lawsuits in U.S. court, or if they challenge an adverse arbitration ruling in U.S. court, a number of lawyers said. Outside court rulings could bring chaos to the Olympic trials, making it impossible for the U.S. Olympic Committee or USA Track and Field to suspend athletes even if USADA ultimately deems them guilty of drug violations.

The cases are unique because they are built on evidence gathered in a federal raid last fall of the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative (BALCO), which is at the center of a federal steroid investigation, rather than straightforward positive test results.

"It's all novel territory," said Jerrold Colton, attorney for sprinter Kelli White, who accepted a two-year ban from USADA after being presented with evidence from the BALCO case. "It's all new. I don't know that anybody can sit here and say, 'This is the best way to proceed.' "

USOC and USATF officials acknowledge U.S. court rulings would take precedence over their internal rules. Before the 1992 Summer Games, sprinter Butch Reynolds challenged a two-year ban for a positive test for the steroid nandrolone. A Supreme Court justice agreed to hear the case and ordered the 400-meter race at the '92 Olympic trials to be conducted with Reynolds in the field. The IAAF, however, refused to allow Reynolds to compete in the Summer Games.

"It wouldn't surprise me if you saw an athlete try to take that same path," said IMG senior vice president Brad Hunt, who was Reynolds's manager throughout his court battles. "That would have a bearing in Sacramento, but it may not have any bearing in Athens. The USOC would have to respect the U.S. courts. The IOC [International Olympic Committee] wouldn't have to."

Officials from within the IOC and IAAF, the world governing body for track and field, declined to comment on how their organizations would react to such a scenario. However, lawyers and sport officials said neither organization would be obligated to uphold a U.S. ruling as long as the Games weren't taking place on U.S. soil.

"I wouldn't speculate on how [the USOC] would react to a court ruling," USOC CEO Jim Scherr said, "but I do think it's fair to say that with the IAAF, the IOC and Athens organizers, it's going to be extremely difficult to affect a [U.S.] court ruling on those bodies."

The athletes have 10 days after the receipt of their letters to respond to USADA's anti-doping review board, an internal grand jury of sorts. Only after the review board has considered the case would USADA bring formal charges, channeling the process to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), an independent court set up by the IOC largely in response to the Reynolds's case.

Athletes who enter arbitration have two choices: Take the matter to the North American CAS, which provides an appeal mechanism to the international CAS, or go directly to international CAS for a hearing in the United States with the understanding that the decision would be binding.

Collins's lawyer, Brian Getz, has vowed to seek a federal injunction if his client loses in arbitration, which he and other attorneys contend is weighted against athletes. "There is a certain feeling the deck is stacked against you under USADA's protocols," Colton said.

Colton and other attorneys cited several examples they say make USADA arbitration an uphill battle: Strict rules of evidence don't apply as they do in U.S. criminal court and majority rather than unanimous decisions are sufficient from the three-person arbitration panels.

"In a general sense, I would much rather be in district court where my due process and constitutional rights will be preserved," said George Walker, the attorney for track coach Remi Korchemny, who was among four men associated with BALCO who in February were indicted on federal steroid distribution charges.

Attorneys, however, say they are wary about sidestepping USADA's arbitration process entirely. In recent years, various courts have upheld the sanctity of arbitration, declining to interfere with a process to which both sides are technically bound, several lawyers said.

Several attorneys object to the fact that USADA pays the arbitrators, but USOC general counsel Jeff Benz said yesterday that the USOC had reached an agreement with USADA to pick up those fees immediately.

Benz stressed that the arbitrators had been paid by USADA with USOC funds, and the USOC saw nothing wrong with the previous arrangement.

"We determined that it was easier to redirect the funds rather than continue to have to respond to these minor arguments," Benz said in an e-mail. "For us, it has been important to ensure that athletes have available to them a low cost or free system to resolve these disputes."