The battle by the American cyclist Tyler Hamilton to prove he is innocent of taking performance-enhancing drugs at the Athens Olympics has been dealt a near knock-out blow after a team-mate, the Spaniard Santiago Perez, has had a confirmed positive for the same offence.
According to Alvaro Pino, the race director for both riders' trade team Phonak, Perez came second in September's Tour of Spain but returned a positive for blood transfusion after the event.
That situation would be almost normal given the drugs scandals shaking cycling, were it not that Hamilton retained his gold medal for the time-trial event in Athens despite a positive "A" test for blood transfusion at the Olympics. A "B" test - a standard part of anti-doping procedure - proved impossible because his second sample had been accidentally frozen, irreversibly damaging the cells. Hamilton was the United States' only athlete with a positive dope test at Athens.
The plot thickened when the American gave positive results, this time with both "A" and "B" tests and once more for blood transfusion, during the Tour of Spain. Now his team-mate Perez has been found guilty of the same offence, making Hamilton's claims of innocence at Athens look even more fragile.
Both Perez and Hamilton face a potential ban of up to two years, but the American is hanging on to his gold medal. Not however, if the Russian Cycling Federation have anything to do with it: their rider Slava Ekimov came second to Hamilton in Athens and they have taken the case to the Sports Arbitration Tribunal. This latest development will almost certainly strengthen their arguments that Hamilton should be stripped of his title.
Perez's positive test is more than likely to curtail the future of one of Spain's most promising young riders, who completed cycling's second most important stage race just a minute behind the overall winner Roberto Heras.
Phonak are defending Hamilton and Perez and have set up a panel of five scientists to investigate the tests. "In both cases, the panel's verdict will be decisive," Pino said. "Should they be found innocent, the team will keep them on, if not, then not. For now, they have both been suspended."
Phonak founded their team three years ago and insisted on a radical anti-doping posture - but Hamilton and Perez are not their only riders to have been linked to drugs this year. Oscar Camenzind was sacked after he was found positive for using EPO, and another Swiss rider, Reto Bergman, was shown the door in February after doping products were found in his suitcase.
Alasdair Fotheringham writes for 'Cycling Weekly'