Finnish Olympic gold medalist and three-time world champion Mika Myllyla was found dead in his home in Kokkola, Finland, on Tuesday morning.
For about 5 years in the late 1990’s, Myllyla was one of the best skiers in the world. He won the 30 k classic race in the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Japan, as well as two other medals there and a bronze in Lillehammer in 1994. In World Championship racing, Myllyla won three races and was second in another in Ramsau in 1999; he also stood on the podium three times in Trondheim in 1997 and once in Thunder Bay in 1995. The Finn had an incredible 25 World Cup podiums to his name between 1994 and 2000.
In 2001, however, he was enveloped in a doping scandal which took out the entire Finnish ski federation at the World Championships in Lahti. A bag of medical supplies was left in a gas station outside of Helsinki and later traced to the team; the skiers were tested and found to be using hydroxyethyl starch, a masking agent for EPO. Myllyla himself later admitted to using EPO in the 1990’s when he was dominating at the highest levels of competition, and said that his coach, Kari-Pekka Kyrö, had told him to take the drugs.
“Myllyla appears to have been a victim of deliberately organized doping within a national team,” said Norwegian hero and longtim rival Bjorn Daehli.
The skier wrote a “testament” of apology, which revealed that he deeply regretted his actions.
“I have been faced with a deep sadness,” Myllylla wrote. “My heart is broken, and I can’t find the words to describe the amount of pain that I feel… I’ve always tried in my life to be personally responsible for my deeds, and so now I will be. As a top-level athlete, I should have taken it upon myself to be aware that what I was taking which would lead to a positive doping result. Now I… pay a high price… I believe that God wanted for me as fair. From the bottom of my heart I want to ask forgiveness of the Finnish people.”
Despite being banned from competition, Myllylla remained fairly popular. Unlike many dopers, his competitors continued to say kind words about him.
In 2008, Myllylla visited Vegard Ulvang, a former rival, in Norway. While both men were nervous for the meeting, it went well.
“It was very special,” Ulvang told NRK News at the time. “Mika was very open and regretted what had happened- he said that he had been very bad.”
Erling Jevne, a member of Norway’s 1998 gold-medal Olympic relay team, also liked Myllylla despite his problems.
“He was very popular in Norway throughout the 90’s and one of the Finnish athletes that we had the most contact with,” Jevne told NRK. “He was a great athlete in my eyes. He was a nice guy who was put in an environment where he was offered illegal drugs. I think he would have been a top athlete even without that kind of help.”
Even Swede Per Elofsson, who understandably didn’t have the nicest things to say about Myllylla regarding the Lahti doping scandal, was sad to hear the news, telling Aftonbladet that Myllylla “was a nice person outside of the ski trail.”
But despite keeping more friends than your average convicted doper, Myllylla’s troubles only got worse. He tried to work as a real estate developer, but lost his job due to drinking problems. He was also arrested for drunk driving twice and assault three times. His wife left him. Those around him blamed his staggering sense of guilt and remorse.
“It was a turbulent time, and he struggled to find his mission in life after his cross-country career,” said Torgeir Bjorn, a former member of the Norwegian national team who also works as a sportscaster. “He struggled at home with alcohol and other things. I thought maybe he had resolved his problems and was… making a meaningful life. But unfortunately it wasn’t so.”
1976 Olympic gold medalist and Finnish sports hero Juha Mieto saw Myllylla’s death as an extension of his problems with alcohol and his unhealthy mental state.
“Oh, oh, oh, is it really true?” he asked the Finnish newspaper Iltalehti. “This news comes as a shock. I wasn’t expecting it to get so bad.”
While Myllylla’s police called the cause of death unclear and an autopsy has not been released, officials did not suspect foul play. They released a statement saying that they were investigating the death.
Myllylla would have turned 42 in December.