Posted July 1st, 2002
It’s a blessing of human nature that less than four months after the Salt Lake Winter Olympics, we can still picture the thrilling victories, but the shameful defeats are already fading from memory.
The Nordic skiing events at Soldier Hollow were nearly perfect. The venue itself, a five-hundred-acre bowl laced with trails and nearly devoid of trees, provided the best-ever view of biathlon and cross-country events for thousands of on-site spectators and millions who watched on television. Durable, manmade snow, in some places four feet deep, covered 25 kilometers of trails, miles of fencing allowed spectators to view the races “up close and personal,” and an army of security officers provided round-the-clock protection for more than a month.
And to top it all off, Mother Nature smiled on Soldier Hollow during the Olympics. It was bright sunshine and blue skies, for which Utah is famous, throughout most of the Games, with temperatures cool enough to preserve the snow, but warm enough for ideal spectating.
Cheating was the only dark cloud to cast a shadow on an otherwise perfect Winter Olympics. At Soldier Hollow, it took the form of illegal performance enhancement, or doping. Unethical endurance athletes generally use two methods to improve their results. They take anabolic steroids during the off-season, which enable them to train harder and recover faster, thus they enter the competitive season with more muscular strength and greater speed than their ethical rivals. They also use a variety of methods to boost their red blood cell count for important competitions. It’s the red blood cells that transport oxygen to the muscles during strenuous exercise, and an endurance athlete who can transport 10-percent more oxygen during a race enjoys a significant advantage. The ability to supply the muscles with oxygen becomes critical at altitude, where the concentration of oxygen is less than at sea level. The elevation of the Nordic trails at Soldier Hollow is 5,600 feet, just below the limit for major international competitions.
One of the truly insidious byproducts of widespread doping is its tendency to call into question every outstanding performance. Sadly, in the case of Johann Muehlegg’s decisive victory in the Men’s 30-kilometer cross-country race on the first day of the Games, those nagging doubts turned out to be well founded. In spite of a very challenging course, at altitude, Muehlegg led the mass-start competition from the gun, gradually increasing his lead throughout the race.
Five days later, Muehlegg, the 31-year-old German who emigrated to Spain in 1999, again won gold in the 10-kilometer Pursuit. It was following his third victory in the 50 K that Muehlegg tested positive for darbepoetin, a relatively new drug developed to treat anemia and severe kidney problems. The International Ski Federation recently announced that Muehlegg will be banned from competition for two years.
Two Russian women were busted on the final day of the Games. Larissa Lazutina was forced to return the gold she won in the Women’s 30 K, while her teammate, Olga Danilova also failed the drug test in the same race. Both women tested positive for darbepoetin. They join their teammate, Natalia Baranova-Masalkina in disgrace.
Baranova-Masalkina tested positive for erythropoietin in an out -of-competition test before the Games began. All three women have been banned from international competition for two years. Alexander Voronin, coach of the Russian women cross-country skiers, announced his resignation on April 1, 2002.
Ironically, while the International Olympic Committee boasted about catching Muehlegg, Lazutina and Danilova cheating in their final competitions of the Games, each athlete will be permitted to keep medals won in earlier races, during which, in all likelihood, they were also doped, but slipped through the IOC’s testing protocol.
In a bizarre footnote to the Nordic events at Soldier Hollow, following the closing ceremony, housekeepers cleaning a home in Midway, UT which had been rented by the Austrian Nordic skiers, uncovered a stash of blood transfusion equipment. Austrian athletes took three medals home from Soldier Hollow, silver and bronze in the men’s 30 K cross country and bronze in the men’s 10 K biathlon sprint. It was the Austrian men’s relay team that out-sprinted the USA’s Carl Swenson for fourth place, one of the most exciting American relay performances in memory.
After a three-month investigation, the IOC banned two Austrian skiers, both of whom finished far out of the medals, for blood doping. In addition, the team coach, who performed the transfusions and the team chiropractor, who prescribed the treatments were both banned for the next two Winter Olympics.
With seven confirmed cases of illegal doping, the Salt Lake Olympics set a new record in the history of the Winter Games. The newly created, World Anti-Doping Agency is clearly a long-overdue step in the right direction, but the cheaters may have too much of a headstart.