More Curious Material in Skiing's Closet
March 1, 2002

WE always get these wonderful explanations from Olympic athletes about the various drugs found coursing around in their bodies.  I can hardly wait for the explanation of the blood supplies left behind by the Austrian Nordic skiing team in a house in Utah.

Athletes and the officials who enable them are always so glib with their denials. For example, when Larisa Lazutina of Russia came up with a heightened level of red blood cells at the Winter Games, team officials said it was because she was menstruating. That excuse was not available for Johann Muehlegg, a German who brought dishonor to his new country, Spain.  Anyway, they were both sent packing, along with another Russian, Olga Danilova.

The three disgraced athletes had better look in their trophy chests to see what happened to the three gold medals and three silvers they lugged out of Salt Lake City.

"They may think they have won gold medals," Richard Pound, the Olympic drug watchdog, pronounced the other day. "But they are lead."

The six medals constituted quite a haul by skiers who were subsequently documented as cheaters, taking a drug designed for anemia to increase their red blood cell count for endurance. And the merry dance goes on.

On Wednesday workers discovered a cache of blood-transfusion equipment in a house that had been rented by the Austrian Nordic team.  Not only were the Austrians slobs for not cleaning up, but they were also very likely cheats.  An Austrian official said that it was all a big mistake, that the equipment, including blood packets, was merely a part of normal health-care material.

"Whatever happened to the Hippocratic oath?" Pound said yesterday from his office in Montreal. "Whatever happened to `Do no harm'?"

Pound called for the Austrians to make a full disclosure and said, "To deny it is nonsense."

Pound is the chairman of the World Anti-Doping Agency, which is becoming a force against cheating. A week ago, he was hopefully talking up an almost totally drug-free Olympics, but the bust of three medal winners and the finding of blood-packing material in the Austrians' house seem to be taking us back to familiar territory.

The multiple bust in the closing hours of the Games was played down because we all - myself included - preferred to enjoy the Sarah Hughes skate and the Canada-United States hockey game. Catching three prominent athletes who had already won gold medals, however, was like catching three Ben Johnsons in Seoul in 1988.

Unfortunately, the way the rules work, anything they won before they were busted remains theirs. Pound said earlier that blood and urine samples should be re-examined to see if tests had disclosed the presence of the blood-enhancing drug.

"This is systemic use," Pound said. "It did not begin on the day of the last race."

Muehlegg had won two gold medals before a positive test cost him a third; Lazutina won two silver medals before turning back the gold she won Sunday; and Danilova did not have to return the gold and silver medals she won before testing positive on the final day.

Pound and his colleague Johann Olav Koss, the Norwegian speed skating champion from 1994, say the busts are proof the system is working.

"I get called a Pollyanna because I say that having only three, or three and a half, positives is a good sign," Pound said. (His half-bust was the Russian skier Natalya Baranova- Masolkina, who was turned away from Utah after a positive test.)

Koss, who won gold medals with marvelous endurance and always tested clean, is a member of the International Olympic Committee and an activist who spreads sporting equipment and expertise to underprivileged nations.

"I don't think athletes should keep their medals, absolutely not," Koss, who now lives in Toronto, said.

At the Salt Lake Games, Pound and Koss set up an office in the athletes' village and recruited athletes to sign up for a passport that contained their drug-testing history. They said 512 athletes signed up, putting their records in a computer and on an actual passport, which they can present at future events.

"This is a proactive first step," said Pound, a former Olympic swimmer for Canada who was recently defeated for the presidency of the I.O.C. but accepted the leadership of the anti-doping agency, which is supported by government and I.O.C. money. He thinks the passport will ultimately drive a wedge between the vast majority of athletes who he says do not cheat and the handful who do.

Call me a cynical sportswriter who has covered far too many Olympics, but I tend not to believe any athlete who says he or she does not cheat.  However, I do believe lab reports, which have been upgraded in the past decade to catch illegal stimulants, body-building steroids and also blood-packing.

Now, to the shock of the two Russians and Muehlegg, the labs caught the presence of darbepoetin, which is similar to the hormone erythropoietin (EPO), which produces red blood cells. One product on the market, Aranesp, is not on the I.O.C.'s list of banned substances by name, but the general type of drug is covered by a phrase "and related substances."

The word was out that testing for darbepoetin would not be sophisticated for another 12 to 18 months, "but it was kind of a trap," Koss said.

"The Russians said, `You weren't supposed to be testing for this,' " Koss added with some glee.

Koss is calling for national federations to investigate medals that were won dishonestly. He said: "Spain and Russia could. The ski federations could ask for an investigation. This just shows low moral standards from their federation. Now they are going home with their tails between their legs."

Koss, who does not easily criticize nations or ideologies, was annoyed by the way some Russian officials blustered about judging and testing and even threatened to go home. They were told by President Vladimir V. Putin to remain, and have been called on the carpet since returning home, despite public sentiment in their favor.

"The Russians were complaining," Koss said. "Now it seems they had something to hide."

He resents what the Russians did because it rubs off on all athletes who are clean. "The problem is, if you have a great performance, you are suspect," he said. "That must change."

Austria won one silver and two bronze medals in Nordic skiing events. It is too soon to tell who was involved with the bloody evidence back in Utah, but those three medals may have also lost all their luster.