Former Tour de France cyclist Tyler Hamilton of the United States has tested positive for the steroid dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), ending the long career of an athlete whose later years were–in a way subtly reminiscent of the disturbing tale of Marco Pantani–marked by struggles, controversy, and penalties.
Hamilton, unlike so many athletes who fail doping control tests, made no attempt to create excuses, laughable or otherwise, for the drug being in his system. Instead, he cited reasons unrelated to performance enhancement for taking it.
Hamilton admitted to knowingly taking the substance which was an ingredient in a vitamin supplement he took in an attempt to alleviate depression. He has decided to retire.
“I took a banned substance so I need to take whatever penalty they will give me and move forward,” Hamilton said. “Today is about my leaving the sport and to talk about my depression, not the past. I don’t want to talk about that anymore, it’s about moving forward and taking care of myself.”
Five years ago, the 38-year-old Hamilton was caught “blood-doping,” a procedure in which red blood cells withdrawn from an athlete’s own body are frozen and reinjected after the body has replenished the lost cells naturally, thereby creating a supranormal oxygen-transporting capacity. Until a little lass that two decades ago, this was the only method available for grossly boosting RBC count. Then EPO and its derivatives hit the scene, rendering blood-doping old-school and cumbersome–until tests for EPO came out. Then endurance athletes went back to the old way in an attempt to gain an advantage without being caught. But there are tests for blood-doping, too, as Hamilton and others have discovered.
The article details what ultimately led Hamilton from a conventional antidepressant to the DHEA-containing kind:
Dr. Charles Welch, at Mass General hospital in Boston diagnosed Hamilton with clinical depression in 2003. He was prescribed Celexa as an anti-depressant for the next six years. According to Hamilton, he took amounts double the prescribed dosage for two weeks in January when his mental health declined further after his mother was diagnosed with cancer.
Severe side effects caused him to stop taking the prescribed medication at the end of January. According to Hamilton, his mental health continued to decline without prescription medication during training camp where he purchased Mitamins Advanced Formula for Depression.
Hamilton claims he took the suggested dosage for two days prior to the out-of-competition urine test. USADA’s legal limit of DHEA found in the urine is 100ng/mL. Hamilton’s urine sample was tested at UCLA where lab technicians found 130 ng/mL of DHEA in his urine sample.
DHEA, although a steroid-based molecule and therefore banned, but its performance-enhancing capabilities are questionable.
DHEA is a natural hormone released by the adrenal glands and the synthetic form is primarily marketed as an anti-aging drug, an anti-depressant and for muscle growth. It is one of the only steroids in the USA not classified as a controlled drug and does not need FDA approval to be sold over the counter. According to Scott, it is banned by the World Anti Doping Agency (WADA) and USADA because it is an andro-related substance. Technically, however, DHEA has very little performance-enhancing effects on the body.
“There is no scientific evidence or basis for this steroid to be a performance enhancer,” said Scott. “It is fair to suggest that the probability of DHEA having a performance effect on anyone, at any amount taken is inconceivable. There is no good reason to take DHEA, this is a very foolish drug to take because it is readily detectable, but it has no performance enhancements.”
It seems plausible that Hamilton either wished to be caught or did not care, given his age and his frame of mind. It’s an unfortunate story, and without absolving him of blame–not that he’s asking for this–I’d be inclined to take Hamilton at his word when he says he wasn’t looking for DHEA to make him a better cyclist.