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Thursday, July 22, 2010

Lance Armstrong Lawyers Up; Doper Teammate Tyler Hamilton May Spill to Feds

Posted By on Thu, Jul 22, 2010 at 10:45 AM

click to enlarge What's in the cup, Lance? - RICHARD MASONER
The criminal investigation into the U.S. Postal Service-sponsored team of cycling champion Lance Armstrong took a vast leap forward today with reports that former teammate Tyler Hamilton has agreed to speak with federal investigators. 

Hamilton, an Olympic gold medalist whom doping authorities found to have cheated in a 2004 post-Olympic competition by injecting another person's oxygen-carrying red blood cells, stands to become the Salvatore "Sammy the Bull" Gravano of cycling. As a Lance Armstrong lieutenant who later became leader of a top professional team, Hamilton may be the equivalent of a mob underboss so well-placed that his information could bring down an entire organization. 

Meanwhile, the Daily Journal reported Wednesday that Armstrong has hired a criminal defense attorney.

Hamilton, who launched a futile legal battle to prove his innocence following that 2004 positive doping test, shares much in common with former Armstrong teammate Floyd Landis, whose story of organized, USPS-sponsored doping will be the subject of a Friday ABC Nightline segment.

That disgraced cyclist's allegations earlier this year spurred a criminal investigation into whether managers of Armstrong's Tour de France-winning teams defrauded the U.S. government by secretly violating sponsorship contracts under which the U.S. Postal Service paid out tens of millions of dollars. The contracts included clauses prohibiting team managers from tolerating doping.

Tyler Hamilton -- ready to spill? - RICHARD MASONER
Some news reports have suggested that Food and Drug Administration criminal investigator Jeff Novitzky may be pursuing charges using the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organiziations Act (RICO), under which a prosecutor must prove a suspect oversaw an ongoing criminal enterprise. Novitzky has released no indication whether, or under what sort of theory, he might be pursuing a RICO-type case. However, the circumstances surrounding Hamilton's 2004 Olympic gold medal, and the subsequent finding that he doped, suggest tolerance of doping may have reached organized cycling's highest levels.

According to the book From Lance to Landis: Inside the American Doping controversy at the Tour de France, by  British sports journalist David Walsh, sporting officials detected strong evidence in April 2004 that Hamilton was artificially boosting the oxygen-carrying capacity of his blood, perhaps by injecting concentrated red cells from a different person. The inference was that cycling officials sent a known doper to the Athens games.

USA Cycling, the U.S. liaison agency to the International Cycling Union and the U.S. Olympic Committee, was responsible for selecting the team that would go to the Olympics that August. At the time, USA Cycling's president was a San Francisco investment banker named Jim Ochowicz, who also had a side job as a consultant to the Phonak professional cycling team -- captained by Hamilton.

At the time, Hamilton was one of the most successful cyclists in the world, and was certainly qualified to represent the U.S. at the summer games. But Ochowicz' dual roles threw into question the ability of USA Cycling authorities to independently prevent drug use in sport. Ochowicz has also been one of Armstrong's closest friends, and was employed by the investment banking firm of Thomas Wiesel, founder of Tailwind Sports, the team-management company that is now at the heart of the Novitzky-Armstrong doping investigation.

When Hamilton was tested following his first place in the Olympic 48 km time trial, his blood sample came up positive for carrying someone else's red cells. But an official doping sanction requires that two, separately-stored samples prove tainted. Olympic officials mishandled the second sample, ruling out the possibility Hamilton would lose his gold medal.

Earlier this year, Floyd Landis fingered Ochowicz as one of several men aware of a sophisticated doping program in place at the Phonak team -- a charge Ochowicz denied. 

Landis was the second Phonak leader to suffer a doping positive, and then launch an expensive and futile legal campaign to prove his innocence; Hamilton was the first. That he's apparently readying to meet with federal investigators adds another dimension to the Armstrong doping investigation.

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