Originally created 08/06/99

Cuban high jumper denies drug use



HAVANA -- Saying he was the unwitting victim of a "dirty trick," Cuban high jumper Javier Sotomayor angrily disputed the positive cocaine test that cost him his Pan American Games gold medal.

"I am innocent," the world record-holder told foreign reporters as he left his home Thursday in the fashionable Miramar neighborhood.

In an interview published and broadcast by Cuba's state media, Sotomayor said he doesn't even take vitamins. He pointed out that countless previous drug tests at competitions and by Cuba's official sports doctors had all showed negative results.

"I have only seen that substance in the movies," Sotomayor said about cocaine in an interview with the Communist Party daily Granma. "I am the victim of a maneuver, a dirty trick."

The Sotomayor case is the biggest drug scandal in track and field since Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson was suspended and stripped of his gold medal after testing positive for an anabolic steroid at the 1988 Seoul Olympics.

So far, Sotomayor has talked only to Cuba's government-controlled media, which stand behind his claims of innocence. Cuban officials have charged that Sotomayor was framed, and that the cocaine must have been slipped into his food or drink before the competition as part of a plot by Cuba's enemies.

"My conviction is that there are foreign interests set to harm us," Jose Ramon Fernandez, the president of the Cuban Olympic Committee, said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. "What is the hairy, ugly, powerful hand behind this? We do not know yet."

"I do not suspect the doctors, but I do suspect that there is a manipulation," he added. "I think it is a maneuver against Cuba through Sotomayor by enemies of Cuba."

To Pan Am medical officials, though, all that matters is that the drug was in Sotomayor's urine. They said they don't question how it got there.

Sotomayor, the world indoor and outdoor record-holder and the only high jumper to clear 8 feet, won his fourth Pan Am gold in the high jump Friday.

Following the drug test results, he was stripped of the medal and suspended for two years. That makes him ineligible for this month's World Track and Field Championships and next year's Olympics in Sydney.

The Cubans are expected to appeal the ruling.

Revered by athletes and fans throughout the world, the track-and-field hero is now pursued by a dark cloud of suspicion. His absence will leave the sport without one of its most recognizable names.

Sotomayor was the third athlete -- all gold medalists -- to test positive at the games. Canada's in-line roller hockey team lost its gold medal after goalie Steve Vezina's positive test. The Dominican Republic's Juana Rosario Arrendel, the women's high-jump winner, lost her prize as well.

Sotomayor's urine sample showed a reading consistent with a person who uses cocaine, Pan Am medical chief Eduardo de Rose said.

Recreational drug use remains rare in Cuba, and is frowned upon by Fidel Castro's government, which considers it a negative byproduct of capitalism. But drug use has grown in recent years with an increase of tourism to the island nation.