Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Tyler Hamilton, Doping, and Depression

Tyler Hamilton tested positive for a steroid a few weeks ago and has since announced his retirement from cycling. He maintains the steroid was in a supplement he was taking to help him in his fight against depression and was not taken to help improve performance. The media coverage of the event, as Ophir pointed out to me, tends to fall into two categories: 1) he has always been a cheat, should have sought more responsible help for his depression, and deserves to be out--good riddance; 2) he has suffered seriously from mental illness, it should be taken into account when judging him, and his case should bring more attention to the problem.

Ophir, who rode professionally in Europe for a time, wrote me the following: "High profile athletes are often the most vulnerable to not getting proper diagnosis or help precisely because their job description demands they project an image of invincibility. Additionally, one could argue they have less opportunities for mental health care or for a mental illness diagnosis as 'team' doctor's are not expected nor encouraged to look for signs of an athletes deteriorating mental state. Athletes don't want to rock the boat or be seen as a liability to the team."

I have a lot of sympathy for Hamilton and have rooted for him over the years. I watched him in the Tour of Utah last summer and was happy when he won the U.S. road title. Whether he was taking steroids to enhance his performance or not, it's clear that since cyclists are in such a loose organization (compared with the Major League Baseball Players' Association, for example) there probably is no counseling service at all to help them cope not only with depression, but with anything else... There is precious little protection for cyclists and they likely feel they are always hanging by a thread with no safety net.

Should race organizers, teams, sporsors, even fans be held partly responsible for the situation? Do we unfairly expect athletes to be invincible? Or should Hamilton be dismissed as a cheat?

1 comment:

Ophir Sefiha said...

I am also interested to hear what folks think about Tyler. Judging by a few recent conversations w/ fellow cyclists it seems like many fans are just 'tired' of Tyler and wish he'd go away. Which is of course a sad commentary on our expectations of public athletes.

Just to be sure, I raced a bit in Europe but was by no means a Pro--you need to be able to make a living to be Pro.