Tyler Hamilton blows the whistle…

Tyler Hamilton has finally broken his silence on the FDA Lance Armstrong investigation, joining fellow ex-professional cyclists Floyd Landis, Joe Papp, Bernhard Kohl and Jörg Jaksche in attempting to tell the recent “truth” about the role of performance enhancing drugs in our beautiful sport (I admit that truth/reality are difficult concepts these days, see here and here). Like Landis (and unlike the others mentioned above), Hamilton spent a lot of time, effort and money bolstering claims that his doping positives were erroneous, and he not only risks attack from those in cycling who would like him to keep quiet, but also those who see the volte-face as hypocritical. In this post I look at his stated reasons in light of the cost-benefit analysis athletes perform (consciously or unconsciously) when they make decisions about talking openly and honestly about doping.

Hamilton cites two reasons for this decision in a letter provided to ESPN:

The first has to do with the federal investigation into cycling. Last summer, I received a subpoena to testify before a grand jury. Until that moment I walked into the courtroom, I hadn’t told a soul. My testimony went on for six hours. For me, it was like the Hoover Dam breaking. I opened up; I told the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. And I felt a sense of relief I’d never felt before — all the secrets, all the weight I’d been carrying around for years suddenly lifted. I saw that, for me personally, this was the way forward.

The second reason has to do with the sport I love. In order to truly reform, cycling needs to change, and change drastically, starting from the top. Now that I’m working as a coach, I see young people entering the sport with hopes of making it to the top. I believe that no one coming into the sport should have to face the difficult choices I had to make. And before the sport can move forward, it has to face the truth.

I recently claimed that it was no surprise that so few professional cyclists have come clean over their doping, that of their colleagues, and the facilitation of that doping. Whistleblowers have to feel extraordinarily motivated to come forward, and the odds are stacked against them, even in academia (where I happen to have worked for the past 20 or so years).

One might imagine that academics, who supposedly seek out some form of truth (however postmodern), would provide a role model for whistleblowers and espouse unimpeachable views on fraud. Sadly, this is not the case. When individual academics discover problems in work that might indicate fraud, they often decide to keep quiet (unlike Ashenden or Sprague), and when they don’t, they often find themselves out of work, and may be placed under such intense pressure that their lives are near destroyed. Such pressure may come from the accused, or his or her colleagues, but it often comes from the institutions which should be safeguarding academic freedom and integrity.

Even when professional cyclists are caught or admit to doping, they are reticent about sharing what they know when it might implicate others. Cyclists, unlike academics are often motivated by a ‘rage to mastery’ which has little to do with the pursuit of ‘truth’, and those that have honesty as an overriding motivator are often forced to leave the sport (e.g., Christophe Bassons).

So where do we find our truth. then, if we still care to oursue such an outdated concept. Joe Papp, sanctioned by the USADA and awaiting sentencing for supplying performance enhancing drugs, recently argued in an interview for BBC radio (transcribed as part of a piece by his interviewer Tim Franks in his blog) that only the threat of inarceration will make a difference to attitudes within the sport: stick, rather than carrot:

We’ve seen over and over again that the athletes can’t be trusted to do the right thing; administrators and officials are always going to be subject to undue influence, being corrupted, and the criminal element is entrenched. The only ultimate answer is to dissuade people by threatening their freedom… …I am utterly terrified, and fearful to a degree I’ve never experienced in my life. It’s primordial, what I feel almost every waking minute. I understand that I violated the laws of my country, and the rules of my sport, and I need to be held accountable for that, to dissuade others. I just hope that the process of doing that isn’t one that ultimately sees me done in.

Clearly, love of the sport is and its future is not enough, and indeed can lead to a paradoxical indebtedness to doping. Hamilton and Papp clearly love the sport, arguably too much for their own wellbeing: as Papp has often stated his motivation to dope was bound up with his identification with professional cycling. 

I agree with Papp on this: the tipping point from omerta to openness requires the engagement of law, not just sporting regulations, and it is clear that this may end badly for many, Papp included. In the long run though, cycling must engage with the fact that blood doping has fundamentally changed the sport, and needs to be eradicated for its physical and mental health. Some still doubt the honesty or motives of those who testify in front of juries about what they have seen or done in their work as professional sportspeople: what has become clear only recently through the Bonds perjury case is that juries will convict those who have lied in their testimony about doping (and do care about the image sporting heroes present to the world), and that alone may impact positively upon efforts to challenge institutionalised doping in sport.

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