Tyler Hamilton, the former professional cyclist who played a key role in bringing out the truth about Lance Armstrong and their world of doping, offered some wisdom to business students at the College of Charleston last Thursday.
Hamilton, now 42 and living as “an average person” in Missoula, Mont., seemed like an odd choice to speak at School of Business’ “Think Differently Forum” where the Wells Fargo Auditorium was packed with students and a smattering of avid local cyclists.
Then he offered this insight.
“For you guys, especially the younger generation, I want you to realize that what happened in cycling is what is happening in almost every industry today. There’s a lot of unethical behavior out there,” says Hamilton.
“In every industry, there is pressure to excel and there are rewards. There’s money, pride, personal validation, whatever it may be. Beware of the unwritten rules. The problem with unwritten rules is they are usually unwritten for a reason — they are usually wrong.”
Lessons of life
I will admit it. I was on the fence on whether to extend my long work day, and miss yet another workout of my own, to hear a guy who I expected to rehash a now-famed “60 Minutes” interview from 2011. The stunning interview built momentum on a public level, leading up to Lance Armstrong’s confession to Oprah Winfrey earlier this year.
I was kind of over the nauseating drama, but something drew me to it. That something was seeking raw truth.
While Hamilton probably would have still been living the lie had it not been for an FBI subpoena to appear before a federal grand jury in 2010, he fully admits it now.
When FBI investigator Jeff Novitsky called him saying he wanted to ask Hamilton about Armstrong and the U.S. Postal Service team, it was termed as voluntary. Hamilton turned him down. The next day, a subpoena showed up on his front door for him to appear in court.
He now calls that subpoena the “biggest blessing in disguise” in his life and Novitsky “an angel.” But it took the exorcism of some demons first to get him there.
“I went in kicking and screaming. I didn’t want to tell the truth ... I thought it would be better to keep the secrets buried and continue on with my life,” says Hamilton.
He ended up spending seven hours in the courtroom. “For the first 10 minutes, the truth trickled out, and then it poured out of me,” says Hamilton. “I felt like I had taken off this huge backpack. I didn’t realize it (the lies and secrets) was holding me down so much.”
While some people continue to have disdain for Hamilton, refusing to forgive him for his role in cheating, others have considered him a hero. But Hamilton rejects that label.
“That’s the last thing I am. I’m not a hero. My back was against the wall. I was backed up, and backed up, and backed up, and it was either jump off the cliff or tell the truth. ... Until then, I was scared and thought it was better for all involved to keep things secret.”
Ambition and ethics
Hamilton’s story is not new. Young, talented and ambitious people often get swept into a vacuum of fame and fortune, but it’s a story that must be retold, hopefully, to enlighten those who are embarking on their adult life.
I won’t go into the nitty-gritty of his life, but the nutshell is that Hamilton, a small-framed but athletic young man, fell into cycling after a ski accident at the University of Colorado at Boulder. When he healed, his rehab involved biking.
He turned out to be really good at it, proceeding from a collegiate national championship to the U.S. cycling team and the starting line of the Tour de France in just a matter of years.
“I think it happened because I have a pretty high pain threshold. I have some talent physically, but I was always able to bury the pain and keep going. In cycling, like most endurance sports, suffering is a big part of the sport. I was able to suffer with the best of them,” says Hamilton.
Still, he didn’t think he would be destined by 2003 and 2004 to be the top-ranked cyclist in the world or an Olympic gold medalist, the latter of which was stripped from him after he was caught doping.
“In 1997, I was just happy to be at the starting line of the Tour de France. I told my parents to come see me because I didn’t think I’d be finishing. I thought that would be my first Tour de France and my last one.”
Little red pill
That sudden success got out of control when his cycling team doctor, Pedro Celaya, came into his hotel room after a seven-day staged race in Spain. Hamilton was exhausted. Celaya could see it in his eyes.
“Pedro was wearing a fly fishing vest with pill jars in each pocket. He reached into his upper left pocket and pulls out a little red pill. He told me what it was, testosterone, and he said ‘This is for your health. It’s not doping. It’s not cheating. It’ll be out of your system in 24 hours,’” recalls Hamilton.
“I wasn’t really prepared for that situation. I just took that little red testosterone pill and swallowed it and basically tried to forget about it. But unfortunately, that was the start. To be honest, there was a little bit of excitement there.”
Despite the ethics, the offering of the pill was a sign of acceptance into the inner circle.
And the rest you can read about in Hamilton’s book, “The Secret Race: Inside the Hidden World of the Tour de France: Doping, Cover-ups, and Winning at All Costs,” published a year ago.
Life’s Catch 22
During the talk, Hamilton himself often seemed torn on whether to tell the crowd to choose honesty over cheating.
Would we know his name today, would he be selling books and making speeches, if he hadn’t doped and lived this secret life yesterday? Is it inevitable that this story is destined to repeat itself as long as humans walk the Earth because of greed and ego?
“If you do everything right and do everything by the book, and don’t buy into these unwritten rules, some people are going to miss out. In cycling if you decided not to dope, the contracts might not be there and you’d have to walk away.
“People need to prepare themselves to answer tough questions. Will you be able to walk away? I wish I had prepared for that day when Pedro came into that hotel room. ... I wish I had asked Pedro to come back in an hour, but I didn’t do that.
“You will have to make choices that conflict with your values,” says Hamilton, noting the tendency to rationalize while feeling accepted into an inner circle. “Take time to step back. Remember your values. It’s super important.”
Reach David Quick at 937-5516.