WINNIPEG, Manitoba -- Cuban high jump great Javier Sotomayor was stripped of his gold medal at the Pan American Games on Wednesday after testing positive for cocaine, the biggest drug scandal to hit track and field since Ben Johnson at the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
Sotomayor, considered Cuba's most popular athlete, will be suspended for two years -- knocking him out of this month's world championships and the Sydney Olympics, said Primo Nebiolo, president of track and field's international federation.
But Cuban officials said Sotomayor never took cocaine and charged the substance had been planted in something he ate or drank.
"He is such a such a gentleman. To us, it is almost impossible he would take this substance," said professor Rodrigo Alvarez Cambra, director of the orthopedic complex of Cuba. "He has told us he has not taken this substance and we believe his word.
"That is why we know this is a manipulation in the case of Javier Sotomayor."
It is up to the Cuban federation to suspend Sotomayor, the world record holder and the only man to clear 8 feet. But Nebiolo said if the Cubans do not suspend Sotomayor for two years, the IAAF will.
"I am shocked. I cannot believe it. I am very surprised and upset, because I have great esteem for Sotomayor," Nebiolo said from a meet in Monaco.
IAAF spokesman Giorgio Reineri said he expected the Cuban federation to appeal.
Sotomayor won his fourth Pan Ams gold in the high jump July 30, the final day of the track and field competition.
The Cubans did not name anyone who might have been responsible for causing Sotomayor's positive test. And they said they were not taking any special precautions to protect their athletes from sabotage.
"We are simply eating what the rest of the athletes are eating," said Dr. Mario Granda, chief doctor of the Cuban medical group. "The only thing we are doing is that we hope those who manipulated these results or enhanced these results or altered the results of a person who never took this substance will never do this again."
Although all sports have prescribed drug penalties, they are not always applied on recreational drugs that are not taken to enhance performance.
Mario Vasquez Rana, president of the Pan American Sports Organization, said that in doping cases, his group does not differentiate a recreational drug such as cocaine from a performance-enhancing substance such as a steroid.
"To us, it is sanctioned as an infraction," he said.
Sotomayor is the third athlete, all gold medalists, and the second high jumper to test positive at these games.
Steve Vezina, goalie for Canada's in-line roller hockey team, was caught using Nandrolone, costing the team its gold medal. Juana Rosario Arrendel, winner of the women's high jump and the only gold medalist from the Dominican Republic at the games so far, was stripped of her medal for using stanozolol.
In addition, Ray Martinez, a member of Mexico's baseball team, refused to take a drug test, which was tantamount to a positive test.
Eduardo de Rose, medical chief for the Pan Am Games committee, said it makes no difference where the cocaine originated or why it was taken, even if it was in a medicine.
"Once the substance is found in urine, we do not question where it came from and the reason for taking it," de Rose said.
Sotomayor's urine sample showed cocaine in the amount of 200 parts per million, which would be consistent with a person who uses the drug, de Rose said.
He said the discovery of cocaine traces indicates the drug would have been taken four to five days before the test.
"More than that, we would not find it," he said. "When we find traces of cocaine, ... it shows the ingestion was very recent."
Granda called Sotomayor a "complete sports gentleman" and said he was a "flagbearer for the struggle against doping."
"His dignity is much above and beyond any results given in any laboratory," Granda said. "He is an innocent man."
Granda said Sotomayor's fourth gold medal "will be in the hearts of all Pan Americans who love you and trust you."
Sotomayor was seen in Cuba on Tuesday night at a rally for the gold medal-winning baseball team and stood beside President Fidel Castro.
On Friday, Sotomayor became the first person to win four Pan Ams track and field titles in the same event when he cleared 7-6´.
Sotomayor won the 1992 Olympic gold medal, the 1993 and 1997 world outdoor championships, and the 1989, 1993, 1995 and 1999 world indoor championships.
He was ranked No. 1 in the world in 1988-89, 1992-95 and 1997-98.
It was a further embarrassment to Cuba's team at the Pan Am games. Eight Cubans have left the delegation, including one journalist, with sources close to the team saying at least seven plan to defect.
The finding against Sotomayor marked the biggest scandal in track and field since Johnson was stripped of his 100-meter gold medal and world record in Seoul for using the performance-enhancing drug stanozolol.
Johnson later returned to competition, but he again tested positive for drugs in 1993 and was suspended for life. He is appealing that second ban and has asked for reinstatement by the International Amateur Athletic Federation. The IAAF Council will meet at Seville, Spain, on Aug. 17 to decide the case.
Sotomayor's case was the third involving big-name track athletes in the past two days.
On Tuesday, Dennis Mitchell, the U.S. 100-meter champion and 1992 Olympic bronze medalist, was banned for two years by the IAAF after a drug test showed high levels of testosterone. Earlier Wednesday, Britain's Linford Christie, 1992 Olympic 100-meter gold medalist, was suspended by the IAAF after a drug test showed the possible presence of Nandrolone. Christie insisted he was innocent and intends to defend himself against the charges.
Sotomayor assured his place in sports history by soaring 8 feet at the Central American Championships at San Juan, Puerto Rico, on July 29, 1989. He improved that record to 8-0´ at Salamanca, Spain, on July 27, 1993.
He set the world indoor record of 7-11´ on March 4, 1989. He has cleared 7-8´ a record 88 times and 7-10´ a record 21 times.