Note: The opinions and thoughts contained within the Editor's Column are the sole property of the author and are not necessarily reflect the opinions of members of the American Cross Country Skiers, organizational sponsors, and/or xcskiworld.com advertisers.
February 24, 2002 is now an historic sports date not only as the closing of the 2002 Winter Olympics but also as the flashpoint for perhaps the greatest doping scandal in Olympic history. Just as the 2001 World Championships will forever be known for the scandal that surrounded the positive doping tests of six Finnish skiers (The infamous "Lahti Six"), the 2002 Winter Olympics now will have to live with the stigma of the "So-Ho Trio". Larissa Lazutina, Olga Danilova, and Johann Muehlegg blew apart world-class fields in cheating their way to a collective total of five gold and three silver medals. The trio looked for all the world like they were skiing on another planet throughout their parade...and it turns out that planet contains a nifty chemical playground. In the end they leave the Games in disgrace, their support systems/federations are running for cover, the second major victory in two years in the battle for clean XC skiing is won, the dopers have lost two of the precious medal haul...but we want more.
The facts are plentiful and speak for themselves.
Someone caught with a illegal and immoral doping agent floating around their system on Thursday of one week is virtually certain to have had the same agent floating around the Friday before. If someone is injecting a drug designed to help kidney patients avoid anemia at the of an Olympics...it's a good bet they were "using" at the beginning.
Illegal hemoglobin levels (against an absurdly high "legal" standard to begin with) are, plain and simple, not products of anything "natural" outside of a high-tech pharmacy. Unless you are one of perhaps the one in a million people that naturally and normally carries a hemoglobin count a nautical mile higher than the average superhuman elite endurance athlete...and none of the trio are documented, even in their own medical bios, as being such a freaky specimen...if you break the ceiling, you are cheating. It's that simple.
Perhaps the most damning evidence is the mere fact that the international authorities have actually acted in the name of truth and justice...not once but several times in the span of several days. In the face of international allegations of cover-ups and conspiracies regarding XC doping control, with an already heated situation over "Russian disrespect" brewing, the alphabet soup (IOC, FIS, and WADA) actually did something right for a change. First there was the one-day suspension of the Russian women's relay team. Then public controversy over Muehlegg's blood values before the 50km. Finally the Sunday bombshell. Three of the biggest names in the sport...nailed for cheating.
Applause, applause, applause. But still...WE WANT MORE.
We have seen the start of the punishments for the trio. We are going to see more. Unfortunately we will likely not see everything they deserve.
There is no question that taking away Muehlegg's 50km gold and Lazutina's 30km gold was a strong start but the IOC insists that they can't retroactively take away additional medals awarded to the cheaters before the positive tests. It's "in the rules" we are told and, despite even the sick expressions of the IOC boss, we aren't likely going to see more hardware stripped unless folks can find the dope in earlier tests done on the trio.
The three will also get their hand's slapped with the same pathetic two-year international racing suspension that the FIS actually thinks is a real punishment. For Lazutina this is going to be a particularly laughable situation as she was set to retire after this season anyways. Danilova and Muehlegg are also both turning 32 this year. It's very possible both will come back...as some of the Lahti Six are threatening to do...after their time in the luxury FIS-sentencing purgatory.
Worse yet, there is every reason to believe little to nothing will happen to the extensive support system that helped all three athletes with their chemical habit. A few heads might roll as sacrificial lambs but the likely scenario is that we won't be seeing a full compliment of physicians, therapists, coaches, administrative officials, etc. from both the Spanish and Russian teams banned from international competition. You also shouldn't hold your breath waiting for either federation to impose sweeping "clean sport" reforms to guarantee that such scandals won't happen again. This last problem is particularly acute simply because there are few international insiders that seriously believe that the Lazuntina and Danilova bust was an isolated incident for that particular group.
Russia has hardly enjoyed a positive reputation on the international XC circuit with regards to doping as allegations (albeit largely unproven in official circles) of cheating from go back to the Soviet Union days. In 1997, Lillehammer superstar Ljubov Egorova was nailed for steroids. Without a blink, she was back on the team two years later (thanks to a "get out of jail free card" from the FIS) and got a start in this year's Games in the 15km classic. Integrity at work there. Then, the week prior to SLC 2002, Russian Natalia Baranova was annouced as positive for EPO and suspended from the Games. No claims of Russian disrespect from officials at that time. One Russian coach reportedly made an off-hand comment about the Baranova situation as "well, you know, wrong place, wrong time, wrong day". Hardly a denial that.
Team Russia is holding the line that Danilova, Lazutina, and their entire team is a "victim" in all this. It's refreshing, in a sick way, to see that Washington D.C. political spin making its way into international XC skiing, sortof makes you tingling all over. Problem is, popular opinion worldwide is in exactly the opposite direction. Right now Julia Tchepalova and Mikhail Ivanov are suspects number one and two without a single word being publicly aired about positive tests with their medals. Pretty easy to see why. Lazutina herself says the Russian team is a very close group using the same support system. You've got three top skiers nailed for dope in the span of one month, you've got another one with dope track record...stands to reason some serious questions are going to be raised. Julia and Mikhail, best of luck on that.
And still...WE WANT MORE!!!!
Truth and justice in any battle is a two-way street. Thus, we come around to the most important people in the entire situation. The true victims. The clean athletes that ran on "natural gas" and deserve their rewards.
There's no question that North Americans are rightfully focusing on the golden justice that should be hanging around Beckie Scott's neck right now. We'll go ahead and lay it right on the line. Scott IS the 2002 same-day pursuit Olympic champion.
But Scott is not alone. Cristian Hoffman, Mikhail Botvinov, Kristen Skjeldal, Frode Estil, Thomas Alsgaard, Stephania Belmondo, Per Elofsson, Katerina Neumannova, Viola Bauer, and either Tchepalova or Kaisa Varis (we will put a "wait and see" on that one) have all legitimate claims to medals they either never got or ones with an "upgraded" color. Making things even more interesting, all these athletes have serious financial claims. It's no secret that gold is worth more than silver or bronze. A medal is worth more than 4th or 5th place. Beyond the emotion and symbolism of the medals lies a very real financial reward this is being denied these athletes. The IOC needs to recognize this fact and go beyond mere words.
It is reasonable to accept that actually stripping the trio of all hardware won't happen because of logistical and political realities. Fair enough. This whole thing, as sickening as it is, isn't worth a world war...even a war of words. Larissa, Olga, Johann...keep your medals. Hang em' high in your living rooms. Stare at them daily as a reminder that you simply were not good enough to beat the world on your own. You had to cheat to do it.
But what the IOC can do...indeed, what it already has done in the pairs figure skating precedents-setting example...is award a second set of medals to the clean athletes that deserve them. For a richer-than-rich international organization like the IOC, ordering up a dozen or so new medals isn't going to break the bank. Give them to the clean athlete's national federations and allow the various nations to create appropriate ceremonies this spring. Even better, use a stage like the Holmenkollen races in Norway to hang the real medals around the real champions' necks.
Most importantly, let the Olympic record show the names of the true medalists in addition to the dopers. The appearance of an asterisk next to the names of the trio should stand as a lasting legacy of shame. Lest we fail to protect future generations from the criminals of the future.
It's a simple solution. The ball is in the IOC's court. So what's it going to be folks?