Tyler Hamilton

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Tyler Hamilton
This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.

The second greatest cycling talent currently in this country, the gold medalist in the cycling time trial at the Athens Games, has been implicated in a dramatic doping scandal. Tyler Hamilton has tested positive twice recently for an illegal procedure, once in August during the Games and again on September 11, during a race in Europe.

One of the B tests, administered yesterday, has confirmed one of the positive A tests, and now, Tyler Hamilton will likely be the first American gold medalist in 32 years to face the shame of having to give back his medal. What the tests have revealed in Hamilton's system isn't an anabolic steroid, nor an amphetamine, not even the illegal substance rampant in the world of cycling, erythropoietin. Hamilton stands accused of having someone else's blood mixed in with his. Sounds like science fiction but the truth is that transfusions were almost de rigeur back in the early '70's, especially among Scandinavian cross-country skiers and long distance runners. Sprinters covet muscle size and fast-twitch muscle contractions for explosion. Testosterone-family drugs help them. What endurance athletes covet is a higher number of red blood cells which help them utilize oxygen more efficiently. Obviously, changing one's blood chemistry is serious business and is not a practice most athletes would be able to perform alone. A doctor either extracts some of the athlete's blood, runs it through a centrifuge to separate out the red cells, and then injects those cells back into the athlete's system before competition. Or the athlete undergoes a transfusion of someone else's compatible blood. By the late '80's, all these transfusions became illegal in the sports world. That's when the infamous EPO, erythropoietin, came onto the scene. EPO is a protein produced naturally by the kidney, which stimulates the bone marrow to produce more red blood cells. Synthetic EPO became the darling drug of Tour de France cyclists. A number of them have actually died from strokes and thickening of the blood. The doping police pressed to find an efficacious test for EPO. They succeeded and that has thrown some endurance athletes back to the old transfusion technique.

If it boggles your mind that an athlete would go so far as to risk his life by undergoing as serious a medical procedure as a blood transfusion to ride up mountains, or ski through forests, or run around a track faster, just wait until genetic engineering comes into play. This doping stuff will seem like innocent child's play. There are many a mouse and monkey to already experience significant augmentation of red blood cells for more than six months from a single injection of the EPO gene. We've also tweaked the genes to produce Human Growth Factor and Insulin-like Growth Factor -- and testosterone. Do you have any doubt that the thirst to build the perfect bionic body pulses in both athletic and scientific circles all around the world?

The Tyler Hamilton case is yet another signal to us that even the warmest, down-to-Earth athletes who swear to us that they would never, ever cheat, are willing to face possibly tragic consequences in exchange for the momentary thrill of gold and glory.

This October 22, a blue-ribbon panel of doping experts, including the great Olympic champion Carl Lewis -- along with this reporter -- will be presenting a day-long symposium on drugs in sport at Loyola Law School on Albany Street downtown. It's free. If you're interested, log onto KCRW.com and click on The Score for all the details.

This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and that's The Score.




Diana Nyad