Features 9th June 2017

Tyler Hamilton: wiping the slate doesn’t result in clean sport

Tyler Hamilton’s name is just as famous for his activities off the bike as it is for his achievements on them. Hamilton competed during an era in which success in professional cycling involved doping, and he was a successful cyclist. He joined the US Postal team in 1997; moving to the CSC (Computer Sciences Corporation) team in 2002, retiring in 2009.

In 2003, he became the only US cyclist to have won one of the Five Monuments of Cycling when he won the Liége-Bastogne-Liége. In 2012, he was stripped of his Athens 2004 Olympics time trial gold medal, which he had already returned following a doping confession.

Earlier this year, European Athletics proposed that World and European records be re-written in an attempt to restore credibility to athletics. Because of what he has lived through, Hamilton knows the proposal will not do this.

Why doping is part of cycling’s history

The toughest race in professional cycling is the Tour de France. It was initially conceived as a race that nobody would finish by publishers keen to sell more newspapers. It is a team sport, where potential winners are assisted by team members, known as domestiques, taken from the French word for servants.

The domestiques protect the potential winner from the wind, chase down attacks from other teams and pace climbs, sometimes fetching drinks for team leaders. Lance Armstrong was, for many years, the protected potential winner on the US Postal team, and Hamilton was his team mate.

In the early days of the Tour, competitors were offered the equivalent to what they might earn from a good job in a factory for the duration of the Tour, as well as prizes for stage wins and for the eventual winner. Cyclists, who were not professionals, would take whatever they could to numb the pain of riding 20-25 stages, some of which could be over 300km.

Drug use was initially accepted. A rule book issued in the 1930s reminded riders that the race organisers would not be supplying drugs and that riders would have to supply their own. Drug testing did not arrive until the 1960s, by which time the doping culture was endemic. However, as Hamilton points out in his book, The Secret Race, the real game-changer was the introduction of erythropoietin (EPO) in the mid-1980s.

Erythropoietin (EPO)

The early users of EPO were, in their own way, risk-taking pioneers. EPO is a naturally-occurring hormone which stimulates the bone marrow to produce more oxygen-carrying red blood cells, which in turn enables the muscles to perform better and for longer. The caveat to adding additional exogenous EPO to the body is that the blood becomes thicker, which means that the heart has to work harder to pump it round. Get the dose right, and the performance gains can be remarkable. Get it wrong, and there is an increased risk of heart attacks and death.

The introduction of EPO is thought to be behind a number of cyclist deaths in the late 1980s and early 1990s. A particular risk is at night, when the heart rate naturally drops. It is understood that some riders from this era set alarm clocks during the night to allow them to exercise, thereby raising their pulse rate and allowing the thickened blood to flow more easily around their body, preventing a heart attack. Miss the alarm, and you could be in serious trouble.

Hamilton joined US Postal in 1997, just as EPO doses were being perfected. In that same year, the International Cycling Union (UCI) introduced a ‘No Start Rule’, a health measure designed to prevent further deaths from EPO. Under the rule, the UCI carried out blood tests before and during competition, and any rider with a haematocrit level (ratio of red blood cells compared to blood volume) of more than 50% (47% for women) was forced to rest for 15 days. A workable test for EPO was not developed until the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games.

Hamilton stayed with US Postal until 2002. All of the top three finishers in the Tour de France from 1998 until 2002 were implicated in doping in some way, although some have been cleared. During the 2010 Tour, the highest-placed ‘clean’ rider finished tenth.

“I picked the wrong time to come into cycling”, said Hamilton after a presentation at the 2017 Sports Resolutions conference. “I wish I’d been born ten, 15, 20 years later”.

Festina Affair

In 1998, a car belonging to the Festina team was found to be carrying a large amount of doping products. This marked the start of the Festina Affair, which involved a series of events that exposed organised doping in professional cycling. “They weren’t the only team”, explains Hamilton. “At Postal, there was blood doping on the team bus. The whole Tour de France team”.

In a parallel with what is happening in athletics today, the organisers of the Tour de France and the UCI attempted to draw a line under the affair by billing the 1999 Tour as the ‘Tour of Renewal’. “They tried to make out they had got beyond it, but they hadn’t”, points out Hamilton. “Up until the Festina Affair and the Tour de France 1998, teams carried doping products in their trucks. To them, getting on a plane from France to Spain, crossing borders, was no problem. It was that loose and relaxed. After Festina, things went underground, using secret cell phones, codenames. Festina didn’t solve the problem, it just made it go underground.”

Eventually, the attempt to sweep the situation under the carpet came back to bite cycling in the backside in the form of Operación Puerto. The Spanish investigation into the clients of Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes threw up a huge list of names within cycling and across wider sport that allegedly benefitted from his prescription of prohibited substances.

“Fuentes worked with cyclists, soccer players, football players, track and field athletes, tennis players and many big cyclists”, alleges Hamilton. “They have to live with their lies. To win a gold medal still felt great, but you still hear that voice in the back of your head. There are plenty of people who haven’t come out. A lot are out of their sport now and I’m sure that helps, but I’m sure they wouldn’t want to go to a reunion with me.”

In 2013, the Operación Puerto trial got underway. Central to the investigation were 211 blood bags seized back in 2006, which a Spanish court ordered to be destroyed after sentencing Fuentes to prison. However following a successful appeal in May 2013, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) is now in possession of the bags.

Hamilton is hopeful that the blood bags will implicate more of Fuentes’ clients. “Hopefully they will do something with those blood bags”, he says.

However, the Operación Puerto investigation was overshadowed by much bigger news. Hamilton’s team mate, Lance Armstrong, confessed to doping.

Armstrong

Lance Armstrong’s confession followed a costly US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) investigation into the star, whose seven consecutive Tour de France wins from 1999 until 2005 meant that his poster adorned the wall of many an aspiring young cyclist. “People were worshipping him”, says Hamilton. “It’s probably the biggest fall from grace that has ever happened to an athlete”. An affidavit (PDF below) provided by Hamilton was key in USADA’s evidence against Armstrong.

Hamilton was subpoenaed (ordered to testify in court by a US government agency) in 2010. “It wasn’t until the federal investigation happened and I had to stand in front of a grand jury, that I realised it was either tell the truth or jump off a cliff”, he states. “I had to tell the truth or go to jail. I realised that things had gone too far. I spent about seven hours speaking in front of the grand jury. I had never really told the whole truth from the beginning to the end. It was a massive relief. It was like I had a hundred kilogram backpack on and I just shed it. That was life-changing. I get goosebumps just thinking about it.”

However, the proverbial had yet to hit the fan. “I knew that there was a federal investigation into Lance Armstrong and I knew that what I had said in front of that grand jury was sealed and it wouldn’t get out to the public”, explains Hamilton. “So then, I decided to do a 60 Minutes programme”.

According to his affidavit, things got interesting after the 60 Minutes interview was broadcast on CBS on 22 May 2011. ‘On June 11, 2011, I travelled to Aspen, Colorado, to attend an event organised by Outside magazine to which I had been invited’, it reads. ‘Before travelling to Aspen, I had actually checked Lance’s schedule online just to confirm that he was not going to be in town and found that he was supposed to be at an event in Tennessee. Part of the Outside magazine event in Aspen involved an afternoon bike ride. After the ride, a group of us went to the restaurant Cache Cache for dinner. During dinner that evening I got up from the dinner table and walked to the back of the restaurant to use the facilities. I was returning to our table when a hand reached out and forcibly stopped me. It was Lance and all of a sudden he was in my face, saying sarcastically, Hey Tyler, how’s it going? In comments punctuated with expletives, Lance asked “How much did 60 Minutes pay you? How much are they fucking paying you? He said “When you’re on the witness stand, we are going to fucking tear you apart. You’re going to look like a fucking idiot.” Lance continued “I’m going to make your life a living…fucking…hell”.’

Hamilton was not the only one to suffer such a fate. In her affidavit, soigneur (French for caretaker) Emma O’Reilly mentioned that after an interview she gave to David Walsh in 2003, Armstrong had attempted to discredit her by publicly referring to her as a prostitute and an alcoholic. In a radio interview, she has since claimed that Armstrong came to her home in Ireland and made a veiled threat to poison her dogs.

However, despite these shenanigans, Hamilton says he “no longer hates” Armstrong. “I hated him for a long time”, he admits. “We don’t speak, but sometimes we have words when we are pulled in for testimonies, but nothing deep. He’ll have a crack about my hair, I’ll have a crack about his crazy beard. I hope the best for him. Nobody knows what it’s like to be in his shoes. We can sit here and be the armchair quarterback, so to speak, but he didn’t invent doping. When he arrived in the pro ranks in 1992/1993, doping was in full swing.”

“There is a huge price to pay”, says Hamilton about taking the decision to dope. “There was a time when I wanted to kill myself. I couldn’t handle the situation. This was after I got caught, but when I was just living with the secrets. It was miserable and it was killing me from the inside out. I feel lucky.” He says that had he not received the 2010 subpoena from Jeff Novitzky, a former Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Agent turned doping investigator, “I don’t know what would have happened”.

What did happen is that for two years, Hamilton focussed on writing his book, The Secret Race. “It was the hardest thing, but very cathartic”, he says.

Rewriting of records

My chat with Hamilton took place at the Sport Resolutions conference in May, when European Athletics’ proposal to extradite itself from its own dark period of doping was still fresh in many people’s minds. The proposal will be considered at the IAAF Council meeting in London on 31 July. At the conference, Hamilton labelled the idea as “naive” on the basis that there is no evidential reason to assume that athletics is any cleaner now than it was in 2005, when the IAAF began to store samples for future analysis.

The purpose of outlining above how cycling shared a parallel history with similar issues to athletics is to underline that Hamilton is one of the few people who can say this with gravitas. “I think it’s silly”, he says of the proposal. “I think it’s a big mistake to say: right, that was then, this is now. All change. You’ve got to keep working hard and dig even deeper. Using the internet, people don’t even need a doctor. They can buy the substances online and it’s even easier than ever to dope. The problem is that it’s not behind us. When did it stop?”

In cycling, Hamilton truly believes that the days of systematic doping are consigned to history. However after what he has experienced, he is not naive enough to think that it doping doesn’t continue.

“Individuals are still doping”, he points out. “There’s still an underground world there. Today it is still possible to micro dose with EPO. Guys are still doing this. It’s even possible to blood dope. They are still catching guys for EPO. I don’t think there is a blood transfusion test yet. The loopholes have become smaller, but there are still loopholes in the sport of cycling. In other sports, there are massive loopholes. It is the guys at the lower level who get caught. They don’t have a doctor to tell them that if they take this amount of EPO, at this time of night, it will be out of their system by this time tomorrow.”

According to Hamilton, the only way to make a sizeable dent in the issue is through more testing, better testing and education. “Then there is no option”, he argues. “You don’t think about it. Human beings will try and get in front of each other, due to the competitive spirit. Education is very important. In the CIRC report, they recommended that the UCI and governing bodies invite those who have been caught doping to educate young people on doping. I haven’t seen much of this.” 

There are several parallels between the doping problems uncovered in cycling and athletics. Hamilton argues that the UCI turned a blind eye towards what was going on in cycling in much the same way that the IAAF decided against announcing Russian doping positives until after the 2013 Moscow World Championships. As has been pointed out in evidential hearings, sport has too much to lose, in terms of TV contracts and sponsorship money, by announcing that it has uncovered a major doping issue.

“I think they turned a blind eye to it”, Hamilton says of the UCI. “They knew it was happening. The leadership of every sport protects itself. Maybe they didn’t realise how bad it was, but they knew it was going on. They’ve made some big improvements and you’ve got to applaud them on that, but I think that they could be doing a better job. I would like to have helped, but I feel like I’ve been pushed out onto an island.”

This begs the obvious question. Hamilton denied doping for many years and was implicated numerous times before he confessed. Had that not happened, would he have confessed anyway?

He is refreshingly candid about this sensitive question. “I don’t know”, he replies. “I was wrapped up in the system. I was in that world. I hated the anti-dopers, such as Travis Tygart [USADA CEO]. Now I know that he’s a lovely guy. I would have hoped that over time, I would have taken a few steps back, but I don’t know. I was fully into it. Even after I got caught, I was not telling the truth about anybody, so I was still part of the omertà.”

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