Winter Games marred by doping cloud

The casual viewer of the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, which begin on Friday, could be forgiven for wondering just how many athletes are doping after a raft of recent revelations in winter sports, despite “every effort” to crack down.

Endurance sports such as cross-country skiing and biathlon have come under the most scrutiny, but — much like the Summer Games — no discipline has been left unscathed in the build-up to this month’s Winter Games in South Korea.

Russian athletes deemed “clean” will compete under a neutral flag after their country was banned for a well-orchestrated drugs cheating system four years ago.

Speaking on the eve of the Games, World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada) president Craig Reedie attempted to assuage the concerns of athletes who fear their rivals could dope their way to gold. There had been “very substantial” testing ahead of the Games, he said.

But recent Winter Games reveal grounds for scepticism.

Ahead of the Olympics, British newspaper the Sunday Times and German broadcaster ARD said they had been passed a database showing that more than 50 cross-country skiers set to compete in South Korea had returned abnormal readings between 2001 and 2010.

Following Salt Lake City in 2002, the International Olympic Committee increased its scrutiny after Spain’s Johann Mühlegg and four others were caught doping.

At the 2006 Turin Games, doping products were discovered in a chalet used by a coach involved with Austria’s cross-country skiing team.

Yet, the Winter Olympics reached its nadir four years ago in Sochi, when allegations of state-sponsored doping in the Russian team surfaced.

The former director of the Moscow anti-doping lab, Grigory Rodchenkov — now in exile — admitted he fine-tuned a muscle-building cocktail of steroids to ensure Russian competitors won medals. And they inevitably did, as Russia soared to the top of the medals table.

Wada commissioned Canadian professor Richard McLaren to compile a report that focused suspicion on hundreds of athletes, with skating, ice hockey, biathlon and even curling on a long list of Olympic sports under scrutiny.

Endurance athletes in PyeongChang will be tested for the endurance booster EPO, and anti-doping officials fear that athletes have taken to using tiny, so-called “micro” doses to avoid detection.

In response, testers will be taking ever more frequent samples, Xavier Bigard, of France’s national anti-doping agency, said.

Anabolic steroid use is also under the microscope. “One positive test in two is for anabolics and these offences happen in a wide field of disciplines,” Bigard added. “EPO and anabolics can be used together to get both endurance and power. A cheat would be well advised to use both.”

According to Wada data, ice hockey has produced by far the most positive tests and alpine skiing emerges almost as white as snow.

But fans would be forgiven if they no longer believed in winter sports’ Snow White fairytale. — AFP

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