Olympic doping scandal continues to swell

More athletes may face doping sanctions in the fallout of the Salt Lake Winter Olympics with news that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is looking into two more positive drug tests coming out of final days of the Games.

Meanwhile, two earlier doping infractions were confirmed Friday with news that the B samples of Russian cross-country skier Larissa Lazutina and Olga Danilova both tested positive for darbepoetin, which stimulates the production of oxygen-carrying red blood cells. Both skiers -- among the world's best for the past decade -- are now likely to face two-year suspensions.

One of the cases new cases involves nandrolone, which has been a steroid of choice for track athletes, and the other test revealed the presence of methamphetamine, a stimulant. The IOC would not identify the athletes, nor the sports implicated, until hearings are held into the cases -- probably during the week of March 11.

Should doping infractions be confirmed, the IOC would disqualify the athletes, who would be forced to relinquish any medals won at the Salt Lake Games.

It would not be the first time an Olympic athlete was forced to return a medal after the conclusion of the Games. Alexander Leipold of Germany was forced to give up his gold medal in freestyle wrestling from the 2000 Sydney Olympics after a positive drug test, and the gold was handed over to American Brandon Slay, who lost to Leipold in the final match of the 76-kilogram competition.

But until the 2002 Games, the Winter Olympics had been relatively free of the taint of doping scandals. Then on the heels of the biggest doping bust in winter sport history -- when six of Finland's top cross-country skiers, including Olympic and world-championship medallists, were banned for doping violations at the 2001 world championships in Lahti, Finland -- three of the biggest names at Soldier Hollow were all disgraced by failed drug tests.

Triple gold medallist Johann Muehlegg of Spain lost his gold medal in the 50-kilometre classical event; Russian legend Lazutina was stripped of her gold in the 30km classical; and Danilova was disqualified before the 30km. All three skiers were allowed to keep the medals they won in earlier races.

"I didn't receive official written confirmation, but I did get it verbally from the laboratory," said Gian Franco Kasper, president of the International Ski Federation (FIS), referring to Danilova's and Lazutina's B samples.

"There is no doubt. The B samples are positive. It's exactly what we expected. When the A samples are positive, there is a one-in-a-million chance that the B will be negative."

Kasper added that Lazutina and Danilova were immediately suspended by FIS until further notice and that they would probably receive the two-year suspension FIS typically doles out for doping infractions.

Danilova and Lazutina finished first and second, respectively, in the 10km pursuit, the event in which Beckie Scott of Vermilion, Alta. won the bronze medal -- the first Olympic medal ever won by a Canadian in cross-country skiing. The Canadian Olympic Association has argued that Scott, an outspoken critic of doping in cross-country skiing, should be given the gold in light of Danilova's and Lazutina's violations.

In an earlier incident at the Salt Lake Games, Belarussian short-track speed skater Yulia Pavlovic had a positive test for nandrolone thrown out because a seal on the bag holding his urine sample had been broken during transportation.

The IOC opened another doping investigation on Thursday, when equipment for performing blood was discovered by house cleaners in a home near the Olympic cross-country venue of Soldier Hollow. The house had been rented by the Austrian cross-country team during the Games.

Austria's ski federation responded to the discovery on Friday, saying the equipment was used for legitimate medical reasons, namely for treating athletes' blood with ultraviolet radiation to prevent disease. The IOC rejected that claim, terming it "far-fetched."

"First, it doesn't sound credible," said IOC medical director Patrick Schamasch. "Second, any kind of blood manipulation is part of the doping definition. The Austrian position is not relevant for me."

World Anti-Doping Agency chairman Dick Pound of Montreal echoed that sentiment, saying, "(I)t sounds so far-fetched that it has no credibility. It's clear there are teams that are putting medical experts into a mode of helping their athletes cheat. That is clearly unacceptable."

The suspicion is that blood was drawn from athletes and doctored to increase its capacity for oxygen, which enhances endurance. The practice is banned by the IOC

Wasatch Country Sheriff Mike Spano turned blood transfusion bags, tubes and needles found in a closet in the house over to doping authorities of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee. He said there were traces of blood remaining in the equipment, indicating recent use.

"Whatever measures can be taken, should be taken," said Pound. "There should be no rest for these folks."

Three Austrian medals are potentially on the line. Christian Hoffmann and Mikhail Botvinov won the silver and bronze, respectively, in the 30km, and Wolfgang Perner was the bronze medallist in the 10km biathlon sprint.

The IOC said Friday that all samples taken at the Salt Lake Games had now been analyzed. All told, doping control officials conducted 1,960 tests: 642 in-competition urine tests, 96 out-of-competition urine controls and 1,222 blood screening tests.

FIS's Kasper said on balance, the number of tests -- a 300 per cent increase over the 621 tests at the 1998 Nagano Games -- and the number of positive tests were a good sign.

"We knew already last year it was the tip of the iceberg with the Finnish case," Kasper said. "We should be happy they are positive cases. We are on the right way to clean up the sport."