In This Sport, Blood Will Tell

October 10, 2004

Tyler hamilton has been known to grind the caps off his teeth during bike races, so intent is he on pedaling through the pain. He raced for three weeks in the 2003 Tour de France with a cracked collarbone and came in fourth. In August he won the time trial at the Athens Olympics, endearing himself to millions that day by riding with the tags of his recently deceased dog, Tugboat, tucked in his helmet.

Tyler Hamilton: tough yet tender, talented yet ... dirty?

You be the judge: Tests taken at the Olympics, and a month later at the Vuelta a España, showed the presence of another person's red blood cells in Hamilton's samples. At the Vuelta, Hamilton's A and B samples both tested positive. In Athens, his A sample came up positive, but his B sample was inadvertently destroyed.

While Hamilton gets to keep his gold medal, he may yet face a two-year suspension by the UCI, cycling's world governing body. Passionately protesting his innocence at a press conference in Switzerland, the 33-year-old Massachusetts native assured reporters that he would "fight this until I don't have a Euro left in my pocket"--a day that could come all too soon. His team, Phonak, said it will cancel his contract if his innocence cannot be proved.

Is he O.J., vowing to find "the real killers"? Or is Hamilton more like Dr. Richard Kimble, the victim of a miscarriage of justice? Either way, it's a sad day for cycling.

Or is it? The test that appears to have snagged Hamilton, developed in the 1990s by Australian researcher Margaret Nelson, was recently shepherded through the WADA and US Anti-Doping Agency approval processes by her countryman Michael Ashenden. It slams shut a door that cheaters have been able to walk through since the mid-'80s. Blood doping--the transfusion of fresh blood, or the reinfusion of stored red blood cells, to boost the number of oxygen-transporting red blood cells in an athlete's body--has been around for decades. Some members of the 1984 U.S. cycling team admitted to having availed themselves of this Transylvanian technique before the Los Angeles Games. (At that time neither the IOC nor the UCI banned blood doping.)

The rise of erythropoietin (EPO), an injectable drug that increases the blood's ability to store oxygen, made blood doping passé. By 2000, however, as tests to detect EPO became increasingly effective, transfusing was back in vogue. The new test, however, should close off that unpleasant avenue.

"Hopefully, the publicity from the Hamilton affair has made it known that blood doping is no longer an option," Ashenden says. "It's a ghoulish practice."

"It's disgusting if you're looking from the outside in," says 1984 road race gold medalist Alexi Grewal, the last American to win an Olympic road event before Hamilton. "If you're on the inside looking out, it's business. It's your livelihood. It's a whole different perspective."

Grewal's teammate Davis Phinney e-mailed from Italy to tell me that only one member of the road team was involved in blood doping. (Rebecca Twigg, who took the silver, has admitted that she engaged in the practice at the Games.) "It wasn't then considered illegal," wrote Phinney, "but for sure, unethical." Grewal, however, doesn't exactly claim the moral high ground. He might have tried blood doping, he says, but was never faced with the opportunity.

Grewal raced professionally for nine years. On one of his teams, he says, "it was customary, every morning and every evening, for the soigneur to hand out prepared syringes." Grewal refused to inject himself--again, not because his ethics were offended. "We had no idea what was in them," he says. "If I'd had more information, maybe I'd have made a different decision."

Grewal admits having experimented with ephedrine, a banned stimulant, for races at which he knew he wouldn't be tested. "That was as hard as I got," he says. Grewal says he wasn't the only rider in the peloton using illicit substances and makes no apologies for taking them. "I didn't feel guilty then, and I don't now."

So while he applauds its increasingly effective testing, Grewal has doubts that his old sport can be cleaned up. "The testing is always going to be behind the people on the cutting edge. [The willingness to try anything to win] is human nature."

"I'm not a fatalist," he says. "I'm a realist."

A new test promises to curtail the throwback TRANSYLVANIAN TECHNIQUE of blood doping, but will cycling ever be completely clean?

COLOR PHOTOMICHAEL KAPPELER/AFP/GETTY IMAGES TRANSFUSION CONFUSION Hamilton could still face a UCI suspension.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)