Posted July 1st, 2001
This essay was originally broadcast on Vermont Public Radio.
Finland is about the size of Montana, lies entirely above the 60th parallel, and is blanketed in snow for much of the year. As a result, the Finns are passionate about winter sports.
It was the Finnish ice hockey team that stood between the USA and the gold medal at the Lake Placid Winter Olympics. And young, cocky Matti Nykaenen dominated ski jumping throughout the 1980’s. The history of cross-country skiing is written with names like Hakulinen, Maentyranta, Hamalainen, and Mieto—men who often persevered through raging blizzards or bone-numbing cold to achieve Olympic glory. Since the inclusion of the cross-country relay on the Winter Olympic program in 1936, no other nation has won more medals in that event than Finland.
It is Finland’s magnificent winter sports tradition that makes recent revelations about cheating so intensely painful.
Through the decades, scores of World Cup competitions have been held in Lahti, Finland, often before crowds of 100,000 devoted fans. Last March, for the sixth time since 1928, Lahti hosted the Nordic Skiing World Championships, an 11-day gathering of the best Nordic competitors, representing nearly 30 nations from around the globe.
Soon after the races began, Finnish sports enthusiasts were shocked to learn that three-time Olympic medalist Jari Isometsa had failed the doping control for the men’s pursuit. Officials reported that Isometsa had used hydroxyethel starch, an intravenous plasma expander, commonly called HES.
Within days of Isometsa’s bust, the recently established World Anti-Doping Agency demanded a surprise testing of the entire Finnish Nordic team. In a tragic twist of fate, on the same day Finland defeated their arch rival Norway in the men’s relay, three members of that victorious Finnish team tested positive for using HES. Adding to the national disgrace were two top Finnish women who also failed drug tests. Especially painful for Finland was the realization that the six cheaters included two of their national heroes—Mika Myllyla was the Olympic 30-kilometer champion in Nagano and three-time gold medalist at the 1999 World Championships; Harri Kirvesniemi was a national icon, having brought a medal home to Finland from each of the past six Winter Olympics!
With endurance events like cross-country skiing, a significant key to success is the amount of oxygen an athlete can transport from the lungs to the muscles. Competitors with a higher concentration of red blood cells transport more oxygen, and thus, can work harder and longer. Erythropoietin (EPO) is a natural substance produced by the kidneys to stimulate red blood cell production. Synthetic EPO is used by doctors to treat anemia, but it’s also popular among unethical endurance athletes to improve their performance.
Training at high altitude also stimulates red cell production. The Finns took this concept a step further by constructing a pressurized team house, where their skiers sleep at the atmospheric equivalent of a 15,000-foot mountain top. But, to adjust their athletes’ hematocrits to concentrations permitted by the International Ski Federation, the Finnish team doctors had to administer the plasma expander HES, which, in turn, was identified by the doping control.
No doubt the glorious Finnish skiing tradition has been irreparably damaged, but clearly, the Finns are not the only ones who have been cheating. Hopefully, the extent of scandal at the Lahti World Championships will lead to more effective measures for ridding sport of unethical doping, and perhaps a cleaner, fairer Olympics next winter in Salt Lake.