This is a dispiriting day for cycling
It felt incongruous listening to Tyler Hamilton the past two days as he admitted guilt and in the process admitted a kind of defeat.
Hamilton was renowned for his never-say-die attitude and, despite his low-key personality, drama trailed him as noisily as a baseball card stuck into the spokes of a bike's back wheel. He finished second in the 2002 Tour of Italy with a wrecked shoulder and fourth in the 2003 Tour de France with a fractured collarbone. He fought his first doping offense with all the financial, legal and scientific resources he could marshal, a process that lasted nearly as long as his suspension itself.
"If I had to do it all over again, I'd do the same thing," Hamilton told ESPN.com in an interview this past November in Boulder, Colo. "If I'd had another chance to appeal, I would have appealed. If you don't have your integrity, what do you have? Nobody's gonna tell me I did something that I didn't do. I'd spend every last dime if I had the chance."
Hamilton seemed edgy and somewhat distracted that afternoon. He confided that his mother had just been diagnosed with breast cancer, and talked openly about his recent divorce from Haven Parchinski, referring to her as his "best friend." Yet he seemed happy with his Rock Racing team and had just finished the 2008 season on a high note, winning the U.S. road championship he never captured in his prime.
Sticks and stones often broke Hamilton's bones, but something more elusive was what ultimately hurt him. Hamilton said he sought help and began taking medication for clinical depression nearly six years ago, but he told few people and concedes he never dealt with the root causes, simply pushing through the discomfort -- as many people in all walks of life, not just athletes, are wont to do. It doesn't take a rocket scientist, or even a psychiatrist, to figure out someone with a high threshold for physical pain also could be mighty good at suppressing the emotional variety.
It's tempting to take that logic one step further and wonder whether the double life led by many cyclists -- doping and all it takes to conceal it -- could have contributed to what ate away at Hamilton's mental health. But those hungry for closure on that front will be disappointed. Hamilton is not going there, and he stood firm in his denials of past trespasses while baring his soul on more recent events.
"I suffered on the bike, and I suffered off the bike," was Hamilton's concise assessment of his daily battle to stay upright. It intensified over the past year, leading him to episodic binge drinking and, in February, to the reckless decision to take an over-the-counter antidepressant he knew contained a banned steroid.
His teammate and frequent race roommate Mike Creed said Hamilton never lost his outwardly generous, people-pleasing nature. But Creed also noticed when Hamilton's partying veered from ordinary steam-venting to something more ominous. "He was drinking to turn his brain off," said the 28-year-old American rider. "You could tell there was a weight. He wasn't comfortable unless he was raging drunk.
"When the [positive test] rumors came out, I told people I'd bet the house it wasn't going to be something performance-enhancing. It was going to be something off, like this."
The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency is obligated under international rules to follow through and sanction Hamilton in this case even though he is bowing out of the sport. Outside counsel Rich Young, who helped draft the code and has argued for the agency against many athletes in anti-doping arbitration hearings, said the rule is designed to prevent athletes from ducking responsibility by retiring, and to ensure a suspension is in place if they change their minds and come back. Hamilton contemplated and eventually dropped the idea of taking on the entire system in federal court, according to his lawyer, Chris Manderson, but he may yet contest the length of his suspension on the grounds that it shouldn't be treated like any other second offense.
Hamilton's friends and former teammates were subdued. "Just sad," Garmin-Slipstream leader Christian Vande Velde said from his home in Spain. Retired U.S. veteran Bobby Julich, who roomed with Hamilton at the 2004 Olympics, when the men won bronze and gold medals in the time trial, respectively, said he thought Hamilton looked "broken" when he saw him at the recent Tour of California. "Where do you start when you're 38 and you end your career like this?" Julich said.
Congeniality and boy-next-door humility won Hamilton many admirers over the years, some of whom stuck with him throughout his ardent defense against charges of blood doping. That fight also brought him a fair share of ridicule and scorn, new waves of which doubtless will wash up on the beach in the wake of his revelations Friday. Hamilton is asking us to put his self-destructive act in context, but he will have to accept that much of his audience is too worn down and jaded by sports' plague of pretenders to trust him.
"I hope people get big-picture about this and see that it's a tragedy," Creed said Friday. "I talked to him this morning, and I told him I hope he finds the peace he's looking for. You're never as good as the best thing you've done, and you're never as bad as the worst thing you've done."
Hamilton once divided the world into believers and nonbelievers. Now he has retired, owned up to breaking the rules and cited a condition stronger than he is -- a condition so common that millions of people would immediately recognize the names of the prescription medications he spelled for reporters Friday morning. The camps will divide again, into sympathizers who will wish him the best in his effort to regain personal equilibrium and skeptics who will think the whole thing is a beard. It's a dispiriting day either way.
As with many matters in modern cycling, there's no way to fill in all the blanks and give an airtight explanation of what led Hamilton to this juncture. We can only hope he means it when he says the reason he's quitting, for perhaps the first time in his life, is because he needs to chase something more important.
Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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