The widespread use of illegal blood-boosting products continues in cross-country skiing, according to a published study by two Canadian university doctors.
As reported in the Globe and Mail, the newly published sports medicine study shows that the year before the Salt Lake City Olympics, as many as 50 per cent of the world championship medallists and one in three top-10 finishers engaged in some form of blood doping.
Doctors Tapio Videman and James Stray-Gundersen of the University of Alberta were given permission by the International Ski Federation (FIS) to analyze blood samples from athletes competing at the 2001 world cross-country championships at Lahti, Finland.
The FIS arranged that there would be no penalties for a positive result and most of the same skiers competed at Salt Lake City.
Coincidentally, it was at the Lahti world championships where six of Finland's top skiers were banned for using a blood-expanding product in one of the biggest doping scandals in the sport.
It was also at those world championships that Canada's national team skiers -- led by Vermilion, Alberta's Beckie Scott -- rallied against the poor doping control by the FIS and petitioned for outside agencies to take over drug testing.
The Lahti blood sampling done by Videman and Stray-Gundersen was initially supposed to have official status, but federation authorities pulled back on their promise after seeing sample results from a pre-test that indicated an extensive problem in the sport.
The ski federation decided 10 days before the Lahti championships that the testing should only serve as a research project, with no consequences for athletes.
The key information from the tests showed that the higher skiers placed, the more likely they had manipulated the count of red blood cells in their systems.
The higher the red cell count, the higher the blood's capacity to carry oxygen -- an advantage in aerobic sports like cross-country skiing and long-distance running.
"Fifty per cent of medal winners and 33 per cent of those finishing fourth to 10th place had 'highly abnormal' hematologic profiles," said the report, which was published in the Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine. "In contrast, only 3 per cent of skiers finishing from 41st to 50th place had highly abnormal values."
Just how prevalent doping is in cross-country -- and how ineffective the testing programs are -- became apparent in Salt Lake City, Videman said.
Three skiers tested positive for the boosting agent darbepoetin. They had won nine medals, and in previous Olympic Games and world championships the same Russian and Spanish skiers had won a total of 38 medals.
Canada's Scott finished third in the five-kilometre pursuit in Salt Lake City. Her bronze medal was later upgraded to silver after the disqualification of Russia's Larissa Lazutina, the original silver medal winner, for blood doping.
The Canadian and the Norwegian Olympic committees are appealing the results of the race's gold medal winner, Russian Olga Danilova.
Though the study has concrete statistics showing the widespread use of doping, Videman doesn't think its publication would initiate changes in ridding the sport of drugs.
"After 30 years of this, I may be pessimistic and cynical. I think the sponsors of sport are the big power who could make the change."
with files from Canadian Press