The decision that upholds Tyler Hamilton's two-year ban is the latest in a series of landmark cases from the Swiss-based Court of Arbitration for Sport that is helping to draw the lines in the sports war on drugs.
On Dec. 13, the court issued a ruling in a case against sprinter Tim Montgomery that had a major impact. It held that prosecutors don't need a positive drug test to charge an athlete with doping. This ruling asks a different kind of question: How far does an athlete have to go to show the test he failed was flawed?
The answer: extremely far.
Hamilton spent upwards of $250,000 to defend himself, making this one of the most expensive cases of its kind. He traveled around the world to review documents. And, he consistently maintained his innocence, saying he never injected someone else's blood to enrich his own. In interviews, he portrayed himself as a little guy and the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency as a monstrous machine. He portrayed his fight as a civil-rights battle for athletes everywhere.
But the impeccably reasoned 30-page decision, which upholds his two-year ban, strips away his claim. In stunning detail, it rejects each of Hamilton's defenses -- from the fact that USADA improperly withheld records and covered up false positives to the fact that it had a conflict of interest by financing a test that it also used.
"The Panel finds that there was no concealment such as would cast doubt on the validity of the test," it wrote in the decision released Saturday. "On the contrary, the complete and open production of documents and the totally unfettered access that was given [to Hamilton] confirms that those involved in the implementation and validation of the test had nothing to hide."
The blood test was partially funded with a grant from USADA, and debuted at the 2004 Olympics. Hamilton, who won a gold medal there, was the only one of 237 athletes to flunk. A problem with the way his sample was handled prevented the result from being confirmed, so he wasn't charged and kept his medal.
But he failed the same test a month later at the Vuelta a Espana (Tour of Spain). Scientists who reviewed his "Vuelta" sample at a lab in Lausanne, Switzerland, found a "mixed population" of red blood cells. USADA claimed there was no way those other cells could have gotten there unless Hamilton shot up someone else's blood. It sought a two-year ban.
Hamilton is regarded as one of the nicest guys in cycling, with a boy-next-door image that has made him millions. So there was a real say-it-ain't-so-Joe-esque reaction to the news that he'd been ensnared in a drug scandal.
He got widespread attention for claiming at an initial hearing in the case that he might be a chimera, or a person who is born with two blood types. (The claim was cited in Sports Illustrated's "This Week's Sign of the Apocalypse.") But the CAS judges nixed that. They found that DNA tests conducted by USADA completely "eliminated the possibility that the mixed blood cell population in [Hamilton's blood] sample was caused" by the rare condition.
Hamilton also attacked what he said was a fundamental conflict of interest: that USADA, which has many of the powers of a D.A.'s office, not only partially funded the blood test, but also defended it in court. He claimed that the agency hid records from him, had witnesses commit perjury and tried to stonewall at every turn.
Though the CAS judges rejected that, noting that Hamilton had access to more records than any defendant in history, they did seem troubled by the way USADA played hardball. The panel said that it studied all of Hamilton's claims and found that "in some respects they do cast some doubt on the credibility of particular witnesses."
The timing of this case is intriguing because the pendulum seemed to be swinging to athletes who have challenged anti-doping science. In August, Rutger Beke, a Belgian triathlete banned for using the endurance-boosting drug EPO, got his conviction overturned after demonstrating flaws in the test. And a Kenyan runner with American citizenship, Bernard Legat, had his EPO positive overturned after he proved that bacteria in his urine skewed the results.
This decision sends the pendulum swinging back in the other direction.
On his Web site, Hamilton issued a statement in which he says that "the current system has failed an innocent athlete and needs to change."
It is changing, all right. Thanks to this latest decision, anti-doping agencies will feel more empowered to develop new tests to snare athletes.
Shaun Assael is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.