By JAMES CHRISTIE
From Tuesday's Globe and Mail
POSTED AT 12:15 AM EDT Tuesday, May. 13, 2003
Cross-country skiing was awash with banned blood-boosting products the year before the Salt Lake City Olympics, with as many as 50 per cent of the world championship medalists and one in three top-10 finishers engaged in some form of blood doping.
The condemning statistics are contained in a newly published sport medicine study by doctors Tapio Videman and James Stray-Gundersen of the University of Alberta, who analyzed blood samples at the 2001 world cross-country championships at Lahti, Finland. The International Ski Federation arranged that there be no penalties for a positive result and most of the same skiers showed up at Salt Lake City.
“I don't want to downplay the judging scandal that affected the Canadian figure skaters [Jamie SalÃ© and David Pelletier], but the unfairness of what happened to Beckie Scott and other clean athletes is manyfold that,” Videman said in an interview.
At the Lahti world championships, six of Finland's ski heroes were
banned for using a blood-expanding product in a national fiasco
tantamount to the Ben Johnson steroid scandal in Canada. Lahti is also where Canada's national skiers, headed by Scott, became prominent for their stand against the slipshod doping control by the ski federation and petitioned for outside agencies to take over the testing.
The Lahti blood sampling done by Videman and Stray-Gundersen was originally supposed to have official status, but federation authorities recoiled when they saw sample results from a pretest that indicated a widespread problem. 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 a skier finished, the more likely he or she had manipulated the count of red blood cells in his or her system. The higher the red cell count, the higher the blood's capacity to carry oxygen – an advantage in aerobic sports such as cross-country skiing.
“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.”
Most of a World Cup field finishes within 10 per cent of the winner's
time, Videman said, and blood doping could take a skier in the bottom 10 and put him or her on the medals podium.
The doctors concluded that blood doping “is both prevalent and effective in cross-country ski racing and that current  testing programs for blood doping are ineffective.”
Just how ineffective the testing programs were 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 accounted for a stunning haul of 38 medals.
Scott, from Vermilion, Alta., finished third in the five-kilometre pursuit in Salt Lake City. Her bronze medal was upgraded to silver with the disqualification of one Russian woman for blood doping. The Canadian and the Norwegian Olympic committees are appealing the results of a second Russian who finished in front of Scott.
Videman said the rumours of a huge doping issue in cross-country skiing had been around for decades. “Now we have data,” he said. He clarified the finding that 50 percent of medalists used boosting products, saying it should not be taken to mean “every second skier,” since many of the drug users enter more than one event and appear on more than one awards podium.
Videman said he wasn't hopeful that the publication of the statistics would spur skiing officials toward purging 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.”
He noted that newer versions of EPO (erythropoietic drugs) are exactly the same as human EPO and almost impossible to detect. “Twenty years ago, we thought of asking drug companies to put some kind of marker in the drug. But to change a drug, they would have to start clinical testing again from the beginning, and it would cost millions of dollars, so it wasn't done.”