Another sweet sports story turned sour with the news that Olympic cycling champion Tyler Hamilton tested positive for blood doping.
Because it almost doesn't matter what happens from here on out.
Cycling insiders will tell you the 33-year-old American was the nicest guy in racing, one of the most deserving, and the last one they thought would get busted. Cynics, meanwhile, simply wink at the notion that anybody that good in such a dirty racket could be clean.
In the past, Hamilton stood up for the rest of his sport. Those words used to carry a lot of weight. This time he was speaking for himself. The sad part is that nobody gets the benefit of the doubt anymore.
"I am 100 percent innocent," he said Tuesday while awaiting the results of backup tests. "I worked hard for that gold medal, and it isn't going anywhere."
The results of new and improved doping tests in the Athens Olympics in August, and at the Spanish Vuelta less than two weeks ago say something else. Both found evidence of blood from another person, a signal that Hamilton received a transfusion, an old-school cycling ruse to boost performance by increasing the amount of oxygen-transporting red blood cells in his system.
Hamilton called that "completely impossible."
"No. 1, that's risking my life," he said, citing the fear of contracting AIDS. "No. 2, that's risking my wife's life. And for someone to accuse me of doing that ... I'm very angry about that."
And he's not the only one.
Summing up the mood in the riding community in the United States, editor Steve Madden of Bicycling magazine said, "It's a bad day for American cycling if it's true. It's a bad day, in fact, even if it isn't true."
The reason is that stories abound about Hamilton's courage, his long-suffering display of loyalty and his sense of fairness as a competitor. The thinking goes that if guys like Hamilton are dirty, then maybe the cynics have it right; maybe everybody else is, too.
Hamilton's sponsor, a Swiss company named Phonak, stands behind him, but has qualified that support.
Three gold medalists in Athens have already been stripped, and Hamilton would become the first American caught by drug testers. The concept of innocent until proven guilty still holds sway in a court of law here, but not in the court of public opinion.
And no matter how this story ends, all the good work Hamilton has done there is about to be undone.
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