Firing likely if facts prove he cheated

Updated: September 23, 2004, 3:50 PM ET news services

GENEVA -- Olympic cycling champion Tyler Hamilton was suspended Wednesday by his pro team, which threatened to fire him if he can't prove he's innocent of blood doping.

If Hamilton is not able to prove his innocence, then the contract will be canceled effective immediately.
Phonak team statement

Although Hamilton won't lose his time-trial gold medal from the Athens Games because officials froze the blood instead of refrigerating it, IOC officials said Thursday, a test taken at the Spanish Vuelta also showed another person's blood in his system.

Hamilton denied receiving a transfusion -- which can boost an athlete's performance by increasing the amount of oxygen-transporting red blood cells in his system.

Under the heading "We believe Tyler" in a statement Wednesday, Phonak team boss Andy Rihs said: "For the moment, we have to concentrate on the facts. These seem to speak against Tyler. But so long as we're not 100 percent certain that he's guilty of manipulation, we will believe him."

However, immediately below Rihs's statement, Phonak said Hamilton's suspension would hold "pending further notice" until tests and proceedings are completed.

"If Hamilton is not able to prove his innocence, then the contract will be canceled effective immediately," the statement said.

The American said he would "fight this until I don't have a euro left in my pocket."

"I find it hard to believe and I hope it's not true," Lance Armstrong told on Tuesday night. Armstrong was Hamilton's teammate during his years with the U.S. Postal Service team (1996 through 2001). "He was with us for a long time and he's a good, honest, hard-working guy."

Phonak's stance is a far cry from the staunch support of Hamilton it showed Tuesday, when Rihs declared he didn't "fire innocent people," adding that "Tyler is innocent as long as no one proves the contrary."

Hamilton said he already is losing endorsement deals, though he wouldn't say with which companies.

"Already it has ruined a lot for me -- my reputation," Hamilton said. "There are personal sponsors who are pulling out. It's sad."

He's sponsored by Nike, Oakley Eyewear and Watches, Zipp Wheels, pedal manufacturer Speedplay, Bell Helmets and energy bar maker Clif Bar.

Phonak, a Swiss team, was informed by cycling's international body and the International Olympic Committee that tests at the Athens Olympics on Aug. 19 and at the Spanish Vuelta on Sept. 11 showed evidence of blood from another person.

The International Cycling Union had informed cyclists at the start of the season that tests for blood doping and Human Growth Hormone were well advanced and probably would be introduced in the coming months.

"I am 100 percent innocent," Hamilton said Tuesday. "The results were like a bolt of lightning out of the blue for me. I have no idea what has happened. It must be some kind of manipulation."

A record 24 athletes were caught with doping violations at the Aug. 13-29 Olympic Games. Three athletes had gold medals revoked for doping in Athens.

Hamilton was the only American cyclist to win a gold medal in Athens, and he called that victory "the highlight of my career, by far."

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.