By Charles Pelkey
American national road champion Tyler Hamilton announced his retirement from cycling on Friday after confirming that he tested positive for a banned substance in an herbal supplement he used to treat depression.
The 38-year-old Hamilton confirmed that he had tested positive for Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) a multi-functional steroid he said was in an herbal remedy he took after he had stopped using prescription anti-depressants.
Hamilton said his depression was initially diagnosed in 2003, a year that on the surface “was the best year of my life.”
“Depression has been in my family for a long time,” Hamilton said. “I sought treatment in September of 2003.”
Since then, Hamilton said he’d been using prescription anti-depressants, none of which are banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency. However, after his recent divorce, his mother’s diagnosis of cancer and other personal issues, Hamilton said he began to experience more severe symptoms and first attempted to double his dosage of those prescriptions.
Feeling the side effects, he then stopped taking the drugs entirely, which further exacerbated his problems with depression. Hamilton said he turned to a “homeopathic” remedy ? Mitamins Advanced Formula ? that included herbs, such as St. John’s wort, and DHEA.
“I took a banned substance so I need to take whatever penalty they will give me and move forward,” Hamilton said.
Hamilton suggested that he knew that Mitamins Advanced Formula contained DHEA, which he also knew was banned, when he took it on February 8 and 9, but was acting out of a sense of desperation.
“Anything you can do — even if it was hitting yourself over the head with a hammer — to make yourself feel better, you’d do it,” he said.
“Did I take it for performance-enhancement? Absolutely not. You can look at my results at the Tour of California.”
Hamilton said he decided to retire to deal with issues related to his illness, and that his 2004 suspension and the possibility of a lifetime ban for a second offense were not factors in his decision.
“Today is about my leaving the sport and to talk about my depression, not the past,” he said. “I don’t want to talk about that anymore. It’s about moving forward and taking care of myself.”
Hamilton disputed one report that he had admitted to having doped in 2004.
“The rest of my past is my past,” he said “I’ve already spoken about it.”
Hamilton said he was tested just one day after taking the remedy and stopped soon after. He was tested again on the eve of the Tour of California, and that test, said Hamilton, showed no metabolites of DHEA.
Hamilton was joined on the call by Rock Racing owner Michael Ball, attorney Chris Manderson and Scott Analytics president Paul Scott. Scott was under contract in 2008 to conduct Rock Racing’s internal monitoring program, a deal that expired in December.
Scott said he doubted that DHEA offered any significant benefit to an athlete hoping to gain a performance boost.
“Frankly I don’t think it would be effective to treat depression, nor do I think it would be effective in enhancing performance,” he said.
Hamilton had been staying at Ball’s home in California in February and the team owner said he noticed that Hamilton had been particularly quiet during the stay.
“I knew something was up and I wish I would have addressed it at the time,” Ball said. “I feel a little responsible … I wish I hadn’t put the pressure on Tyler (to win).”
Manderson, Hamilton’s attorney, said that he and his firm were prepared to challenge USADA’s authority in the case in U.S. federal court, but Hamilton declined to pursue the matter. Manderson said he will continue to represent Hamilton in the case until it is fully adjudicated.
Despite Hamilton’s retirement, USADA retains jurisdiction over the case under the provisions of the World Anti-Doping Code. Article 7.6 of the Code specifically notes that the applicable agency retains jurisdiction in the case until the process is completed, regardless of whether the athlete chooses to leave the sport.
USADA chief executive Travis Tygart said that the case is an ongoing matter and that he wasn’t prepared to comment beyond confirming “that Tyler Hamilton tested positive for testosterone or its precursors through carbon isotope analysis by the WADA-accredited laboratory at UCLA.”
Carbon isotope testing is generally used as a follow-up test to confirm the presence of exogenous testosterone or its precursors when an initial testosterone/epitestosterone test indicates a ratio in excess of 4 to 1. However, drug testing laboratories have relied solely on the CIR test in other cases. Tygart declined to say whether Hamilton’s CIR test was triggered by an abnormal T/E ratio.
“Although Mr. Hamilton has now retired from the sport of cycling and has publicly accepted responsibility, this is a pending matter,” said Tygart. “USADA will make an announcement of the final outcome and imposition of the exact sanction in accordance with the rules when the process is complete, which should be in the coming months.”
Hamilton has already served a two-year suspension for homologous blood-doping, following laboratory test results that showed the presence of a secondary population of red blood cells in a sample taken at the 2004 Vuelta a España.
WADA regulations generally call for a two-year suspension for a first-time violation of the World Anti-Doping Code and up to a lifetime ban for any further violations.
That penalty could be reduced if Manderson succeeds in pressing Hamilton’s claim that there mitigating factors leading to the February 9 violation.
Good luck, bad luck and scandal
Hamilton began his career as a stagaire — an amateur development rider — on the then-dominant Coors Light cycling team, after having captained the University of Colorado squad in its successful bid for a national collegiate championship in 1993.
He landed his first professional contract in 1995, joining the U.S. Postal Service team, and competed in his first Tour de France in 1998. He was a member of the Tour-winning Postal team in 1999 and 2000 before switching to CSC in 2001.
It was at CSC that Hamilton emerged as a serious overall contender in grand tours, despite being often plagued by injuries. In 2002, Hamilton crashed in the Giro d’Italia, fractured a bone in his shoulder and still managed to finish second in the overall standings.
He went on to win Liège-Bastogne-Liège in 2003, a classics victory he soon followed up by winning Switzerland’s Tour of Romandie in May. Hamilton entered the 2003 Tour as one of the favorites to reach the final podium in Paris, but cracked his collarbone in a major crash at the end of stage 1. Despite the pain, Hamilton remained in the race and embarked on a successful 142-kilometer solo break to win stage 16 of the Tour. He eventually finished fourth overall.
Hamilton moved to Phonak in 2004 and was designated that team’s leader for the Tour de France. However, his bad luck continued and he withdrew during the 13th stage of the race, suffering from injuries sustained a week earlier in another crash.
The first offense
Hamilton’s first brush with doping authorities had occurred earlier that year, when UCI officials notified his Phonak team of “irregularities” in blood samples submitted by the rider during that May’s Tour of Romandie.
One of the tests in question showed that Hamilton had a blood hematocrit level (the percentage of red blood cells) of 49.7 percent. That level stood in stark contrast to other test results that showed Hamilton’s hematocrit to be as low as 38 percent. The numbers today would trigger an investigation under the UCI’s new biological passport program, but those regulations were not yet in place and Hamilton simply received a warning.
Hamilton continued to ride through the season, competing in the Tour de France but dropping out due to crash-related injuries. He recovered in time for the 2004 Olympics in Athens, where he was awarded the gold medal in the individual time trial. The Athens Games, however, were also the event at which WADA first used a new method of testing for homologous blood doping, the re-injection of red blood cells from another person.
Hamilton, like other Olympic competitors, submitted a blood sample in advance of competition. Subsequent tests showed the presence of a secondary population of red blood cells that responded differently to the presence of antibodies than did the cells that represented the majority of his sample.
Remarkably, the new test was accompanied by a testing protocol that noted that the presence of a secondary population would count as a positive doping test only if those cells constituted more than 5 percent of the athlete’s sample. As a result, Hamilton’s sample — despite displaying indications of a secondary population — was treated as a negative.
The decision triggered a furious debate between lab officials and representatives of WADA who argued that the presence of any foreign cells constituted a violation. Ultimately, WADA emerged the victor in the argument, but by then Hamilton’s B sample had been stored in a freezer, destroying the cells and precluding a required follow-up test for confirmation of the initial result.
Since Hamilton was effectively cleared of a doping violation at the Olympics, WADA rules did not require that he be notified. As a result, Hamilton entered the 2004 Vuelta a España without the threat of an ongoing doping investigation hanging over his head.
Hamilton won the stage 8 individual time trial at the Vuelta and again provided a blood sample. Test results showed the presence of a secondary population of red blood cells — albeit at levels even lower than in Athens — and Hamilton was notified of the result later that month. He withdrew from the race several days before news of the test results were made public.
Hamilton insisted on his innocence and vowed to fight the case, hiring Los Angeles attorney Howard Jacobs in advance of his first hearing before a three-member arbitration panel in the United States. He lost on a 2-1 split decision and was suspended for two years. Hamilton then appealed his suspension to the International Court of Arbitration for Sport, where he lost in a unanimous decision.
Although he has never confirmed the total cost of litigating the case, sources have estimated that Hamilton spent nearly $1 million in legal fees in that effort.
His suspension ended in September of 2006. He subsequently signed a contract with the Russian-sponsored Tinkoff team for the 2007 season, but that relationship ended ahead of that year’s Giro. Despite knowing that Hamilton had been implicated in Spain’s ongoing Operación Puerto case when it hired him, the team appeared to succumb to criticism over its decision to place him on its Giro roster. Days before the Italian tour began, Tinkoff removed Hamilton — and Germans Jörg Jaksche and Danilo Hondo — from its roster.
Hamilton has never been charged in connection with the Puerto investigation, although Jaksche has since publicly confessed to his involvement in the matter.
Hamilton then signed on with the U.S.-based Rock Racing team, with plans to compete in the 2008 Amgen Tour of California. But he and two other members of the team were barred from the race by organizers who cited the possibility of their involvement in the Puerto case as reason for their exclusion.
Hamilton continued to compete throughout the 2008 season, capping off the year with a win in the U.S. professional road race championships in Greenville, South Carolina, in August.
On Friday, Hamilton noted it was simply no longer possible to continue racing and attempt to deal with his ongoing struggle with depression. While announcing his intention to retire, Hamilton noted that he is aware that the case will continue to be handled by USADA.
“My future in the sport is yet to be determined,” he said “I’ll live with that. I have officially retired right now.”