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Two American Skiers, Six Others Suspended

February 10, 2006

TURIN, Italy (AP) _ The first whiff of scandal hit the Turin Olympics the day before the opening ceremony, as eight cross-country skiers _ including a former gold medalist _ were suspended for failed blood tests.

The athletes were suspended five days each for elevated levels of hemoglobin, the red blood cell that can increase endurance. The only cross-country event that falls within that time is men’s and women’s pursuit on Sunday.

There is no proof the athletes did anything wrong: Elevated hemoglobin can be caused by simple dehydration or the body’s acclimation to mountain air. But the test result raises the possibility of blood doping with synthetic hemoglobin or transfusions to increase the oxygen in the muscles.

The tests were conducted by the International Ski Federation, which said the suspensions were not disciplinary, but to ``protect the health of the athlete.″

``It’s a health and safety issue, and that’s why it’s there,″ U.S. Ski Team spokesman Tom Kelly said Friday morning.

Kelly said team officials don’t believe the two American skiers _ Kikkan Randall and Leif Zimmermann _ did anything wrong. He said neither will miss their events and would not be available to comment.

The other skiers were: Sean Crooks of Canada; Sergey Dolidovich of Belarus; Jean Marc Gaillard of France; Aleksandr Lasutkin of Belarus; Natalia Matveeva of Russia; and Evi Sachenbacher of Germany.

The suspensions come against the backdrop of extraordinary scrutiny of the athletes in Turin, where the IOC has said it plans to conduct about 1,200 doping tests, and is the first hint of a drug controversy since Olympians began arriving in Italy.

As of Tuesday, more than 100 IOC doping tests had been conducted with no positive results.

FIS said it sampled 224 athletes over two days this week. The U.S. Ski Association said the five-day suspensions start Wednesday, when the tests were administered.

Sachenbacher won gold in the 2002 Salt Lake City Games in the women’s relay, and silver in the women’s sprint. She is currently seventh in World Cup rankings.

German team doctor Ernst Jakob said Sachenbacher’s suspension was unnecessary because she also had a naturally high hemoglobin level which posed no danger to her. Jakob told FIS in August that she had a high hemoglobin level and he said he met with FIS last month and the skiing body gave its approval.

The Germans are also considering legal action.

``Our lawyers are looking at it. We’ll see if anything can be done,″ German Olympic committee spokesman Michael Schirp said.

In addition, Cross Country Canada executive director Al Maddox said Crooks has ``a naturally high hemoglobin level,″ adding that the team was confident he would pass a second test Monday.

Jim Galanes, a coach for Randall, said there’s no chance she was involved with illegal doping.

``There is absolutely no likelihood of that,″ said Galanes, the head Nordic ski coach at Alaska Pacific University who spoke with Randall on Thursday, the day after the test. ``I can guarantee it.″

Randall has won several national titles and competed at the Salt Lake City Games.

USSA official John Estle said there could have been up to a half-dozen instances in this World Cup season where athletes were forbidden from competing because of elevated hemoglobin levels but later cleared in follow-up tests.

``It’s not unheard of,″ said Estle, saying it could be caused by dehydration, if athletes have recently traveled, are working at high altitude in low humidity or have used an altitude tent.

``Any number of things can cause it _ I believe it can be a reflection of your fluid levels. It can fluctuate quite a lot,″ he said.

This is not the first time hemoglobin levels have tainted Olympic skiing.

In the 2002 Games, Russia was unable to compete in the women’s 20-kilometer cross-country ski relay after Larissa Lazutina was disqualified for having high hemoglobin levels. She later was stripped of the gold medal she won in the 30-kilometer classic-style race after she tested positive for darbepoetin.

Also testing for high hemoglobin at those games was Johann Muehlegg of Spain, who lost his gold medal in the 50-kilometer classical race after testing positive, also for darbepoetin.

In mid-January, World Cup cross-country skier Reto Burgermeister was suspended for five days for having elevated hemoglobin levels. The 30-year old Burgermeister was tested after training in Val di Fiemme, Italy, and then suspended by the International Ski Federation.

All previous blood tests taken since December 2005, showed normal levels, the Swiss ski federation said. Burgermeister is entered in seven events at Turin.

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Associated Press writers Dan Joling in Anchorage, Naomi Koppel and Janie McCauley contributed to this report.

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