It has been an exciting week at the 9th annual Discovery Vitality Summit in Sandton. This summit hosts some of the most intellectual, influential and controversial people as well as topics that help shape our thoughts and understandings on health, wellness, performance and longevity as human beings. Over the years covering this event I have heard the human polar bear, Lewis Plugh, share his incredible journey. I have heard Jake White reveal his secret to winning the Rugby World Cup and I have even seen a panel of highly qualified and respected professors and academics fight it out over high fat – low carb diets. It was one of the most entertaining verbal punch-ups I have ever seen. What has been a highlight this year was listening to, and then interviewing, public villain and cyclist Tyler Hamilton.
Tyler from a young age started out not in cycling but as a skier, training hard and competing in the hope of turning professional one day. A serious accident on the slopes in 1991 left him with two cracked vertebra’s and his dreams shattered. Without having any formal training, he decided to try cycling and took to the bike like a moth to flame because he soon found out that he was an absolute natural at it and had a secret weapon that few riders possessed, a high pain threshold.
In three short years he climbed to ranks of the cycling fraternity and started making a name for himself as a young rider. The adrenalin of climbing the ladder so fast kept him hungry for the next big race and ultimately an eye on a victory at the Tour De France. Then one little red pill from his team doctor changed his life forever.
That little red pill was a performance enhancing testosterone booster to help him recover faster from a previous race which left him physically drained. This would not be the last in the experiment with illegal drugs. Tyler moved onto EPO through injections and ultimately found the mother-ship of all drugs according to Tyler, blood doping. This is the process of drawing blood from your body then re-infusing it back into your own body weeks later before a race. Blood carries oxygen from the lungs to the muscles and by increasing your red blood cells, which allow more oxygen to be delivered to the muscles, and gives a huge performance edge or unfair advantage in endurance sports like running, swimming, cycling, triathlons and iron-man.
According to Tyler, there was such a culture of blood doping amongst cyclists and an unspoken brotherhood that everyone knew that everyone else was doping, but no one spoke about it.
The question still remains: why should a villain like Tyler Hamilton be forgiven for cheating? Why should he be allowed to attend an event like the Summit, to tell his story, and why should we feel sorry for him? He cheated, deceived millions of fans who put their faith and trust in him and he brought his sport of cycling into disrepute. The mere fact that everyone else was doing it, and the mentality of“eat or be eaten” applied, shows that even though Tyler was guilty, he alone should not be taking the brunt of the dirty sport. Tyler even today believes the sport is not clean and some of the speeds, climbs and times are very questionable. He did advocate however that the sport is now cleaner but still has a long way to go.
I will give Tyler credit for making his story public. He is not a hero by any means for doing so, but the story, and take home message, needs to be told. You try and stand up on a stage, month after month and tell hundreds, if not thousands of people that you were one of the biggest cheats in history and see how you cope with it. “The truth will set you free”, Tyler says, “and the more I can share my story, the more I can help others to make better choices in their own lives”.
There will come a point in time in every sportsmen career, where you will be presented with, in some form or another, a red pill and you will have to make a hard choice. To join a life where success doesn’t feel like success, you are constantly looking over your shoulder, fearful of getting caught and living with the stench of guilt that doesn’t seem to go away, or, keeping it clean and being able to look in the mirror knowing that the person you see is a person that did it all himself.
It almost seems that Tyler’s life was destined for high pain. His accident on the slopes, his rise and fall from glory and now the pain and humiliation he has to go through each time in sharing his story in persuading others to make better choices in their sporting lives. I don’t condone that it was right and I don’t feel sorry for him, but I do believe that his life was not designed not to be ordinary. Instead of taking one step off a cliff which would be the easy pill to swallow, he has taken a much harder and painful journey in teaching and sharing his story with as many people who are willing to listen. No victory is worth it unless done with a clear conscience. And this Tyler can vouch for.