Hamilton Presses His Case
Undeterred by a spring storm that dumped up to two feet of snow on the Rocky Mountain foothills, Tyler Hamilton hopped on his bike one day last week for a workout, hammering out 80 miles through the cold and slush.
“I like to push my body,” he said.
After six-time-defending Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong, Hamilton is arguably America’s most accomplished active professional bicycle racer. He finished fourth in the 2003 Tour de France despite riding virtually the entire course with a broken collarbone -- a ride that cemented his reputation for courage and grit. Last summer in Athens, Hamilton won an Olympic gold medal.
But last Sept. 11, at the Tour of Spain, Hamilton allegedly tested positive for blood doping, a violation that could lead to a two-year ban from competition. An arbitration panel is expected to announce its decision Monday, one that could all but end the 34-year-old Hamilton’s career, or clear him to resume riding in the world’s top cycling events.The complex case stands at the intersection of sport, science and law. A theme central to Hamilton’s defense is the notion of a “vanishing twin” who shared the womb when Hamilton was a fetus -- a point on which there is much speculation but no proof.
The Times has obtained key documents before the arbitration panel, including legal briefs, test results, and the transcript of the hearing six weeks ago where the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency and Hamilton’s defense team presented their cases. Along with interviews with Hamilton and others, the paperwork offers an unusually detailed glimpse into an Olympic-style doping case.
No matter the verdict, an appeal is almost assured. USADA, in the midst of a campaign to rid Olympic sports of doping, has yet to lose a case in more than two dozen hearings dating to its inception in 2000. Hamilton, meanwhile, is the rare athlete who is willing and able to mount an aggressive defense.
He and his wife, Haven, estimate the case has cost them more than $700,000 in legal fees and lost income. His riding team fired him.
“Imagine if this happened to a 23-year-old neophyte [bicycle] rider. Or a figure skater whose mom and dad mortgaged their home to pay for her coach and travel. Game over,” Haven Hamilton said. “They’re not in a position to spend $300,000, $400,000, $500,000 to fight this fight and get to the bottom of it.”
The Hamiltons say they believe the system is stacked against athletes, citing as evidence a bill he received last week demanding $2,890 for the test analysis at a Swiss laboratory that led to the case against him. “Why don’t you just pour a little more acid in the wounds?” Haven Hamilton said.
Anti-doping authorities allege that Hamilton received a transfusion of someone else’s blood, a violation of international sports rules, and was caught at the Tour of Spain. Transfusion has long been known in endurance sports such as cycling as an efficient, if perhaps physically risky, way to gain a competitive advantage. More red blood cells can deliver more oxygen, which boosts endurance.
Hamilton says he is innocent.
“I didn’t blood dope, that’s for sure,” he said in an interview at the couple’s home in the Boulder foothills.
USADA officials declined to comment on the case.
Hamilton’s riding team, sponsored by a Swiss company called Phonak, had clear designs on winning the Tour de France. Hamilton, who as a key teammate helped Armstrong win his first three Tours, was recruited as the Phonak team’s undisputed leader -- the one the other riders would try to shepherd through the grueling three-week race.
Were he to have won the Tour, according to testimony from Phonak chairman and team owner Andy Rihs, Hamilton “probably would get about a million or something like this, I would say, dollars, maybe a little more. ... I think certainly he would double his salary, that’s clear.”
Last year, two other Phonak riders tested positive for blood-doping offenses: Spain’s Santiago Perez, for the same sort of transfusion Hamilton is accused of undergoing, and Switzerland’s Oscar Camenzind, who admitted using a synthetic version of the banned hormone erythropoietin, or EPO. The substance -- like a transfusion -- boosts red blood cells.
The reason elite athletes are tempted to turn to doping is because it works, if they don’t get caught. Jim Stray-Gunderson, a University of Utah professor well known in Olympic circles as an expert on cardiovascular physiology, testified that a small boost of hemoglobin -- the substance inside red blood cells that carries oxygen to the muscles -- can mean a 45-second difference in a 30-minute race.
“That takes people in ski races or running races from nowhere in the world to being on the [medal] podium,” he told the arbitration panel.
In Hamilton’s case, documents reveal a pattern of suspicious results from so-called “health tests” he underwent last spring and summer. Such health tests can examine urine, heart and lung functions, and are a regular feature of life on the pro racing circuit. Athletes receive these extensive tests at least four times a year, in addition to blood tests typically administered at 7 a.m. the day of a race.
Under sports protocol, health tests are not be used to prove a doping offense. “It’s an indicator, but it’s not a proof,” testified Mario Zorzoli, medical director for the International Cycling Union, which goes by the acronym UCI.
However, a rider can be kept from starting a particular race if, according to a complex formula that factors in levels of both hemoglobin and reticulocytes, or immature blood cells, the reading tops 133. In cycling, such an index is called an “off score.”
Last April 24, in testing before one of cycling’s oldest classics, the Liege-Bastogne-Liege race in eastern Belgium, Hamilton’s off score totaled 123.8. The mean score for UCI riders is around 90, Zorzoli said.
Five days later, in testing at the Tour de Romandie in Switzerland, Hamilton’s off score was 132.9. His hematocrit level -- the percentage of red blood cells in the system -- read 49.7; the allowable limit is 50. His reticulocyte index measured a very low 0.22.
Hamilton said the numbers can’t be viewed as gospel, contending that the testing machines are prone to varied readings. “The machines aren’t absolute,” he said.
For authorities, the combination of a high hematocrit level and low reticulocyte reading amounts to a red flag. The thinking goes this way: If immature cell readings are low -- meaning few new red blood cells are in the works -- a hematocrit reading cannot come out high unless there has been manipulation of some sort, like an infusion of blood.
In June, UCI officials sent Hamilton a letter saying he was going to be watched because his “blood values showed strong signs” of “a possible manipulation.”
In August at the Olympics, Hamilton tested positive for blood doping, according to anti-doping officials. But the Olympic lab in Athens botched the analysis, they said. The gold medal is still Hamilton’s.
Then came the Tour of Spain, where Hamilton tested positive again, according to USADA. His blood samples, USADA alleges, showed evidence of someone else’s blood -- what scientists call “mixed populations.”
Looking at Hamilton’s charts, Ross Brown, an Australian scientist called to testify by USADA, said the “only reasonable explanation” was a transfusion. He theorized that Hamilton had gone through at least two significant transfusions, one around the beginning of 2004, another perhaps halfway through the year, and might have needed only an occasional boost “to top up” throughout the year.
Hamilton, asked under oath if he’d had multiple transfusions, said, “It’s not true.”
He also said the Sept. 11 test was unfair. Time and again, Hamilton’s lawyer, Howard Jacobs of Los Angeles, suggested that the World Anti-Doping Agency didn’t properly vet that mode of testing, according to the transcript. The test, which looks specifically for evidence of mixed populations, was put into use just last summer -- midway through the Tour de France, just weeks before the start of the Olympics.
Even WADA, in a report issued after the Athens Games, said in discussing Hamilton’s Olympic blood test, " ... there is always a risk, when new methodologies are fast tracked, that problems relating to the very newness of a process will occur.”
According to the transcript, Jacobs suggested two problems with the test:
One, it doesn’t produce an objective standard, such as a percentage of someone else’s cells above which an athlete is guilty. An “I know it when I see it” standard just isn’t fair, Jacobs said.
Two, as the experts on both sides of the case agreed, the test confirms only evidence of a mixed population, not of a transfusion. Jacobs suggested authorities hadn’t properly analyzed the test for false positives -- such as the possibility of a “vanishing twin” -- before authorizing it.
The fact that Hamilton is not a twin is irrelevant, according to David Housman, an MIT professor and genetics expert who was the defense’s key witness.
When he teaches beginning medical students, Housman said, he tells them that one in three pregnancies will go for 10 to 12 weeks, “long enough that they have a heart and they have blood,” and then end spontaneously.
Studies on twins with childhood leukemia, he said, show that the genetic signature for the disease is the same in both children -- whether identical or fraternal twins. That means, he said in an interview, that “cells can pass from one twin to another during the time that they shared a womb together.”
“So put these pieces together and say to yourself, ‘I have a blood test that is looking at whether there are cells from a different person in a person’s body’ -- well, the assumption is he had a transfusion and that’s how they got there.
“The truth of the matter is they can get there certainly from a fraternal twin who has a different genetic identity and bone marrow stem cells can persist for life. So that’s the deal.”
USADA and its experts assail that theory as nonsense. They say, for instance, that blood banks would be dotted with donations containing “mixed populations” were it true, but they are not. “Maybe he should hire an exorcist,” Dick Pound, the head of WADA, said with a laugh in a telephone interview, dismissing the notion of a “vanishing twin.”
Jacobs, told of Pound’s remarks, said: “Last I looked, he isn’t a genetics expert from MIT, he’s a tax lawyer from Montreal.”
If not a “vanishing twin,” then how is it that someone else’s blood appears to have been in Tyler Hamilton’s system? “That’s the million-dollar question,” Haven Hamilton said. “If we could explain it, we would. We would tattoo it on our arms.”
She testified that among the reasons she is certain her husband would never have undergone a transfusion was the death last summer of their beloved golden retriever, Tugboat, who “immediately stroked” after the second of two transfusions.
Tyler Hamilton had tucked the dog’s red tag into his helmet at the Olympics, and still wears it around his neck on a silver chain. The Hamiltons now have two new golden retriever puppies, Anchor and Tanker; each wears a red tag that says: “Believe.”
The pups are there to greet Hamilton when he comes home from his long rides.
“If you’re a guilty person and it’s just a matter of time,” Haven Hamilton said, “you can’t go out in the snow and train in that kind of weather. You can’t -- unless you know in your heart you should be out on the bike and you know in your heart you should be back on the racing circuit.”