Backup drug test inconclusive, IOC says

Updated: September 23, 2004, 9:02 PM ET
Associated Press

LONDON -- Helped by a laboratory's big blunder, Tyler Hamilton will be allowed to keep his Olympic cycling gold medal.

The International Olympic Committee dropped its investigation Thursday into a blood test from the Summer Games that showed Hamilton used a transfusion to boost his endurance. The decision was made only because the Athens lab mistakenly put his backup sample in a deep freeze -- not because the IOC believes he was clean.

Hamilton, who declared he is "100 percent innocent," tested positive for blood doping on Aug. 19 after his time-trial victory. But the finding could not be confirmed because there were not enough intact red blood cells in the second sample, the IOC said.

An athlete is considered guilty of doping only when both samples from a drug test come back positive.

Hamilton had been in danger of becoming the first American athlete to lose an Olympic gold medal for a drug violation since swimmer Rick DeMont in 1972.

Asked whether Hamilton had slipped through the net, IOC medical commission chairman Arne Ljungqvist said, "It's up to everyone to draw his own conclusions on that."

Although Hamilton's gold medal is safe, he is not completely in the clear.

Both blood samples taken from Hamilton at the Spanish Vuelta on Sept. 11 came back positive, his Swiss racing team Phonak said.

The tests allegedly showed evidence of a transfusion with blood from another person. Blood transfusions can boost endurance by pumping oxygen-rich red blood cells to the muscles.

It's up to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency and the International Cycling Union to decide whether to take action against Hamilton for the positive tests in Spain. If found guilty of blood doping, the 33-year-old cyclist could face a two-year ban from the sport.

Cycling spokesman Enrico Carpani said the federation would not comment until USADA had dealt with the case. The U.S. body, which handles cases involving American athletes, has 30 days to deliver its findings to the cycling federation, he said.

"This is a matter still being reviewed. As such, we're not in a position to comment," U.S. Olympic Committee spokesman Darryl Seibel said Thursday. "We understand that if it is going to be adjudicated, it will be adjudicated by USADA [U.S. Anti-Doping Agency]."

Phonak plans to investigate the accuracy of the new tests.

"Since the new method is an effort based on probability and interpretation measurements, uncertainties will remain in this examination and procedure in any case," the team said.

Phonak said Hamilton is suspended from racing but remains on the team, pending the review.

Hamilton, a former teammate of Lance Armstrong, could not be reached for comment after the IOC announcement. But earlier, in a statement on the Phonak Web site, he said, "I am sure that the gold medal that I worked so hard for will stay in my hands.

"I guarantee that I represented the United States of America as an honest, clean and proud athlete."'

Hamilton said he would support the team's inquiry to "prove my innocence."

"I am confident that its result will bring me back to cycling soon so I can pursue my dream of winning the Tour de France," he said.

The IOC said it was informed Aug. 22 by the drug lab in Athens that Hamilton's blood sample produced a "suspicious result." A group of experts studied the case and concluded Sept. 16 that the sample was positive.

The IOC set up a disciplinary panel to deal with the matter. But the IOC was informed Wednesday that Hamilton's backup sample was "nonconclusive" and the panel dismissed the case.

The IOC said the blood testing method -- devised by Australian researchers -- was authorized by the World Anti-Doping Agency after being validated by international scientists.

"We're perfectly satisfied that the test properly implemented is entirely reliable," WADA chief Dick Pound told The Associated Press. "But how the test was applied or what was analyzed and all that sort of stuff, I don't know."

Ljungqvist said the Athens lab erred by deep-freezing Hamilton's second specimen instead of refrigerating it. As a result, the blood cells deteriorated and the sample could not be analyzed.

While urine samples and blood plasma are usually deep-frozen, full blood samples should not be. Ljungqvist called it an "unfortunate accident."

He attributed the mistake to the drug lab's heavy workload -- around 3,000 samples were analyzed, a 50 percent increase over previous Olympics -- and the fact that the blood-doping test was used for the first time at the games.

Ljungqvist stressed that the test itself, including the initial positive finding, was reliable.

"The outcome of the B analysis has nothing to do with the method," he said. "It's simply because the blood sample was unfortunately destroyed and could not be analyzed."


Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press