Chinese sportswear company Li-Ning suspended its sponsorship of Asafa Powell on Wednesday after the Jamaican sprinter failed a doping test and was formally placed under criminal investigation in Italy for possibly violating anti-doping laws.
The company said in a statement that it has "great respect for his efforts and hard work" over the years but it was suspending its deal with the former 100-meter world-record holder pending the outcome of a doping investigation.
The announcement comes days after weekend revelations that Powell and fellow Jamaican track star Sherone Simpson tested positive for the stimulant oxilofrone at the national championships last month. Discus thrower Allison Randall and two other athletes also returned positives for banned substances at the same meet.
News over the weekend that Tyson Gay also was under the cloud of doping led sportswear giant Adidas to suspend its sponsorship of the U.S. sprinter on Monday.
On Wednesday, Li-Ning said it will immediately end its contract with Powell if he is "found to be involved in the use of banned stimulants." The company said it "is firmly opposed to any acts of deceit that tarnishes the principles of fair competition."
Li-Ning, which has thousands of retail outlets in China, is gradually gaining recognition in the United States. Last year, Miami Heat star Dwayne Wade signed with Li-Ning, which gave the NBA player his own brand within the company. Wade's former Miami teammate, Shaquille O'Neal, had also endorsed the brand.
Powell says he is not a cheat. In a Sunday statement released shortly after his agent confirmed the positive "A'' test, Powell said the findings left him "completely devastated in many respects." (Also read: Powell's trainer hits back over doping blame)
"My fault here, however, is not cheating but instead not being more vigilant," said Powell, the last man to hold the 100 world record before fellow Jamaican Usain Bolt shattered it in 2008.
Powell, who turns 31 in November, returned quietly to Jamaica on Tuesday night, according to the Jamaica Observer. An anonymous source told the newspaper that Powell is huddling with lawyers to plan his next move. The athlete's publicist in Jamaica, Tara Playfair-Scott, did not return a Wednesday email seeking clarification. Calls to members of Powell's inner circle were not returned.
Powell has had a rough week to be sure. Since his Sunday statement professing his innocence, police in a northeast Italian town raided a hotel where Powell, Simpson and their newly-hired trainer Christopher Xuereb were staying. Officers carted off seized substances for testing and Powell's publicist said in a statement earlier in the week that this was from Xuereb's room. She said the runner handed over to police one bottle of Aleve and one bottle of 5-hour Energy, berry flavored.
Paul Doyle, the agent for the two Jamaican sprinters, contends something in the supplements the athletes were taking caused it and Xuereb "is the one that provided those."
Xuereb refuses to take the blame, saying he is a "scapegoat" who has done nothing wrong since the Jamaicans hired him in May to provide massage therapy and nutritional help.
On Tuesday, Powell, Simpson and Xuereb were formally placed under criminal investigation for allegedly violating Italy's doping laws.
In Jamaica, the shock value of all the twists and turns of the doping allegations is disheartening to many. Success on the track is a huge point of pride on a debt-staggered island where the limping economy has sputtered for decades and the International Monetary Fund is again trying to kick-start growth after numerous setbacks. The tropical island of 2.7 million people has dominated global sprinting in recent years, winning 28 medals over the last three Olympics.
The positive tests recorded by Powell and Simpson, who has a gold and two silver Olympic medals to her credit, is part of a bigger doping crisis hitting Jamaica. The findings come a month after another Olympic champion, Veronica Campbell-Brown, tested positive for a banned diuretic.
In a Wednesday statement, the Jamaica Anti-Doping Commission said four of the five athletes who tested positive for banned substances at the meet last month have acknowledged receipt of the notification of the results. One person has requested analysis of their backup sample and they await official responses from the other athletes.
The commission, created five years ago, insists it has a robust anti-doping program even if the rigor of the country's program is under constant scrutiny.
In its Wednesday statement, the anti-doping commission said it has conducted 860 tests - 504 in-competition and 356 out-of-competition - since it was launched in 2009.