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Hamilton Presses His Case

U.S. Olympic cycling gold medalist, fighting a blood-doping allegation, expects to hear an arbitration panel's ruling Monday

April 17, 2005|Alan Abrahamson | Times Staff Writer

BOULDER, Colo. — 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.

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