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More skiers suspended for high haemoglobin; athletes say

11 February 2006

Evi Sachenbacher won Olympic gold for Germany four years ago when officials discovered high levels of haemoglobin in a Russian athlete's blood and disqualified her relay team.

Sachenbacher will be on the sidelines on Sunday during the first Olympic cross-country race for the same thing - along with 11 other skiers suspended before the Turin Games had even begun.

Four skiers received five-day suspensions on Friday for registering high levels of haemoglobin in their blood, bringing the total to 12 in two days after Sachenbacher was among eight athletes penalised on Thursday.

The news came as a shock to the 25-year-old Sachenbacher when she found out Friday morning.

"She was shattered," German team doctor Ernst Jakob said.

There is no proof that the athletes did anything wrong: elevated haemoglobin can be caused by simple dehydration or the body's acclimation to mountain air. The cross-country venue is at about 1,928 metres.

But the test result raises the possibility of blood doping with synthetic haemoglobin or transfusions to increase the oxygen in the muscles.

The International Ski Federation, FIS, said Alen Abramovic of Croatia, Russians Pavel Korosteljev and Nikolai Pankratov, and Robel Teklemariam of Ethiopia had elevated levels of haemoglobin, the red blood cells that can increase endurance.

The tests were conducted by the FIS, which said the suspensions were not disciplinary, but to "protect the health of the athlete."

Athletes who fail blood tests are retested five days later. The eight suspended late on Thursday are scheduled for new tests on Monday. It was not immediately clear when the latest four failed their tests.

"We are confident that five days is a sufficient time to allow for the blood values to normalise if they are the result of living at a high altitude or dehydration," said Bengt Saltin, chairman of the FIS medical committee.

"However, a five-day period is not sufficient to remove the impact of EPO (erythropoietin) or blood transfusion."

The two Americans were 23-year-old Kikkan Randall of Anchorage, Alaska, and Leif Zimmermann, 22, from Bozeman, Montana.

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

Sachenbacher broke down in tears after professing her innocence.

"At home, I drink a lot and I never did anything to be guilty. I am the last person to do something like this," said Sachenbacher, the silver medalist in sprint at the last Olympics and currently ranked seventh in the overall World Cup standings.

International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge said the suspensions "were not doping tests."

"They will have to wait five more days until their blood parameters go down," Rogge said.

"It's a health and safety issue, and that's why it's there," US Ski Team spokesman Tom Kelly said on Friday.

Kelly said team officials don't believe Randall or Zimmermann did anything wrong. He said they will not miss their events because they weren't scheduled to ski on Sunday in the men's and women's pursuit.

Zimmermann said he routinely had a haemoglobin level close to the maximum as he has spent most of his life at altitude.

"I also have had a head cold for the past week and that definitely affected my hydration, along with the altitude," he said.

"Hopefully this won't affect any of my plans at the Olympics."

Randall is set to race on Tuesday, while Zimmermann may be in either the men's sprint on 22 February (Day 12) or the 50-km race on 26 February (Day 16)

"I knew that with all the running around we did getting here and into the village earlier this week, that not getting fluid was a problem for me," Randall said.

The failed tests do raise concern about whether any of these athletes were blood doping with synthetic haemoglobin or transfusions to increase the oxygen in the muscles.

The IOC plans to administer close to 1,200 drug tests during these Olympics. The FIS has sampled more than 200 athletes this week.

In the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City, Russian star Larissa Lazutina was disqualified for having high levels of haemoglobin, keeping the Russian team out of the 20-km relay.

Sachenbacher and her German teammates then edged the Norwegians for the gold medal.

Lazutina later was stripped of the gold medal she won in the 30-km classic race after she tested positive for darbepoetin. Spain's Johann Muehlegg tested high for haemoglobin in 2002 and lost his gold medal in the 50-km classical race after also testing positive for darbepoetin.

German officials said they told FIS in August that Sachenbacher has naturally high haemoglobin levels and requested an exemption for her haemoglobin number.

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

Janie McCauley

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