Hamilton fighting a death sentence | AspenTimes.com

Hamilton fighting a death sentence

Nate Peterson

A Boulder man is in a Denver courtroom today fighting for his life. As with most cases of this nature, there’s blood involved.There is a catch. The accused insists the blood presented as evidence in his appeal – the evidence that his very life hangs upon – is his blood and his blood alone. And, if he can prove such to the three arbitrators who will decide his fate, he will be set free.The man’s name is Tyler Hamilton, 34. He faces charges of receiving an illegal blood transfusion to boost red blood cells – a capital offense in the cutthroat sport of professional cycling.Hamilton insists he is innocent.Three arbitrators from the World Court of Arbitration for Sport – the highest ranking authority in such matters – will decide on Friday whether he is the victim of an egregious foul-up or if he will forever be labeled as a deceitful blood doper.”We don’t have the answer to why there was a positive test at the moment,” Hamilton said in late July before departing on a charity ride that went from Vail to Aspen and back. “If I knew the answer, I’d have it tattooed on my arm. The bottom line, I didn’t blood dope.”Here’s the biggest problem with Hamilton’s case: A firm denial means nothing in today’s sports culture of duplicity and unaccountability. Not when Rafael Palmeiro insists in a congressional hearing that he never did steroids, then tests positive a few months later. Not when Marion Jones persists she is innocent of ever taking performance-enhancing drugs – even though BALCO founder Victor Conte, the man who supplied designer steroids to half of baseball, says he injected Jones himself.Al Franken could write new book on the subject. Everyone claims innocence, some even against the most indisputable of evidence. So why believe Tyler Hamilton? Why not group him with the rest of the scum who have smiled in our faces and then cheated behind our backs?Maybe because Tyler Hamilton is telling the truth.Hamilton’s case is unique in itself. The crux of the argument rests entirely on the viability of a relatively new blood test first instituted in professional cycling in 2004. Hamilton, as well as a number of high-ranking scientists who have come to his defense, believe the test is flawed. The makers of the test, and the governing bodies that back it, believe the test did its job and outed Hamilton for cheating. The cytometric flow test which rendered Hamilton’s positive result is designed to distinguish markers in an individual’s blood. If more than one marker is found in a person’s bloodstream, the proof of a blood transfusion is irrefutable. Or so the makers of the test believe.And, proof of a blood transfusion proves cheating, since increasing red blood cells allows an increased flow of oxygen to muscles, thus giving athletes an illegal advantage.Hamilton’s insistence of the possibility of a false positive rests on two points of contention. The first is that the test doesn’t take into account that there are conflicting results between laboratories doing the exact same test. A positive test somewhere might be a negative test somewhere else. Dr. Gerald Sadler, a professor of medicine and pathology at Georgetown University, is one expert who has spoken out in defense of Hamilton on this point – voicing his doubts about the test’s accuracy in the Rocky Mountain News.Hamilton also insists that there is the possibility that he is a chimera. During pregnancy a women might be carrying twins, but then when one of the twins aborts, its cells are absorbed by the remaining fetus – or the mother.While seemingly far-fetched, some experts, including David Housman, a professor of molecular biology at MIT, voiced in the same Rocky Mountain News article that chimerism is more prevalent than acknowledged. And, that if Hamilton is in fact a chimera, there is no denying the possibility of a false positive since Hamilton would have two sets of markers in his blood.There is also this: Hamilton tested positive after the Tour of Spain in September of last year, which then led the International Olympic Committee to form an outside panel to retest his negative blood sample from the Athens Olympics.The panel concluded, after knowing exactly whose blood they were testing, that the test was actually positive, rebutting the negative result from when the test was administered anonymously. Hamilton got to keep his gold medal from the Athens games because one of his two blood samples was mishandled, thus rendering the retest invalid. Still, IOC president Jacques Rogge purposefully called Hamilton out, insinuating that the medal itself was nothing more than fool’s gold.As for the positive test following the Tour of Spain, the International Union of Cycling handed down a two-year suspension. Hamilton appealed the suspension to the North American Court of Arbitration for Sport, but lost a 2-1 decision in April. Once the American heir apparent to Lance Armstrong, Hamilton suddenly was left for dead. His sponsors had already started bolting. For the first time in nine years, there was no Tour de France in July. Another lengthy appeal would only mean thousands more spent on legal fees, with no guarantee that the money wouldn’t be swallowed whole when another panel of arbitrators ruled against him.Hamilton, however, refused to give up. His mental hard drive didn’t have a force-quit key. Figures, considering he finished the 2003 Tour de France in fourth place with a broken collarbone. Figures, considering he broke his back at CU while racing on the ski team, then turned to cycling after his Olympic skiing dreams died hard. Facing another costly appeal to prove his innocence, Hamilton said, couldn’t be any tougher than those two things.”I’m a fighter,” he said in July. “As a little kid, my parents told me never to give up and keep going regardless of how grim things look. I showed that in the 2003 Tour. The year before that I finished the Tour of Italy second overall. I won a stage as well with a broken shoulder. Life can throw you a curveball sometimes, and it’s not only in sports. Anybody can go through bad periods like I’ve gone through. If you don’t fight on, there’s no point. You’ve got to keep fighting. Hopefully, what I’ve done over the years will encourage people not to give up – both in sports and in life.”This summer, Hamilton pushed himself to the brink during his daily training rides. His seething frustration over his suspension fueling pedal stroke after pedal stroke.On Friday, he will either be vindicated or executed. The shelf life of most professional cyclists rarely lasts past 34. Another year out of cycling would be a death sentence – an exile that would mean Hamilton couldn’t race again in the Tour de France until 2007, when he’s 36.Other American riders’ names have already been batted around as the successors to Armstrong in what will be a wide-open Tour next July. All are younger than Hamilton Levi Leipheimer, 31. Floyd Landis, 29. Dave Zabriskie, 26. Tom Danielson, 27.Hamilton exuded quiet confidence in July, however, knowing that if his appeal is successful, he will be right back on the list.”Certainly, in my opinion, my name is already on that list,” he said. “That’s fine by me [that I’m not on it]. I’m planning on coming back and racing the tour in ’06. I’d kind of like to be a surprise.”Even if his appeal isn’t successful, Hamilton will never settle for the title of cheater. When asked in July how he responded to those who had already made up their mind about him and his case, assuming that he was just like the rest of the liars out there who refused to admit culpability, Hamilton’s words were short and to the point.”No one has ever called me a cheater to my face,” he said.”But people certainly think it,” I said.”What are you saying?” he asked. “Are you saying I’m a cheater?”No. But I’m not the one whose opinion matters.Sports editor Nate Peterson can be reached at npeterson@aspentimes.com