Muehlegg tests positive
Triple gold medalist from Spain meets with IOC officialsPosted: Sunday February 24, 2002 8:21 AM
Updated: Sunday February 24, 2002 12:46 PM
MIDWAY, Utah (AP) -- Johann Muehlegg, a cross-country skier from Spain who has won three gold medals at the Winter Olympics, has tested positive for a performance-enhancing drug, an international skiing official said Sunday.
A random urine test Thursday found traces of darbepoetin in the German-born skier, said Toni Noetzli, an International Ski Federation press coordinator. Results from a second test were expected later Sunday.
It wasn't clear whether Muehlegg will be stripped of his medals or suspended. He was called before the International Olympic Committee's disciplinary panel early Sunday, along with Spanish Olympic officials and the team doctor.
Darbepoetin is used to treat anemia by boosting the production of red blood cells that carry oxygen to muscles. Since it is relatively new, it is not on the IOC's list of banned substances, though it has similar properties to the banned hormone erythropoietin, or EPO.
"The experts might consider it a doping substance, because it has similar effects as EPO," Noetzli said.
Hundreds of Olympic athletes have been tested for banned substances over the past 17 days but there have been no confirmed doping cases. Muehlegg's case is complicated because darbepoetin isn't banned.
The 31-year-old skier won gold in the 30-kilometer freestyle, the 10K pursuit event and Saturday's grueling 50K classical.
Before that race, Muehlegg was randomly selected to be tested for high levels of hemoglobin, an oxygen-carrying molecule in red blood cells that can increase endurance.
His levels were above the limit for the first test, but beneath the threshold in a second test administered five minutes later. He was allowed to race, and made a strong comeback over the final 10 kilometers to beat Russia's Mikhail Ivanov by 14.9 seconds.
Asked why the tests showed different levels, Muehlegg responded, "I don't know if the machine is not working well." He also said a change in his diet three days before Saturday's race might have altered his blood levels.
There have been other doping issues at the games.
High levels of a steroid were found in the blood of Yulia Pavlovich, a short-track speedskater from Belarus. The IOC said she had inadvertently taken the drug nandrolone in a food supplement supplied by her team doctor and coach. Both were expelled from the games.
Pavlovich's first test, which found drug levels 380 times the legal limit, was tossed out because of a broken seal on the bag carrying her urine sample to a lab.
Then, the Russian women's cross-country relay team was forced to withdraw from Thursday's 20K relay after one of its stars, five-time Olympic champion Larissa Lazutina, twice tested over the hemoglobin limit. Russian officials said drug testers were "hunting" their athletes.
Results from a urine test for Lazutina have not been announced, but she competed in the women's 30K race Sunday.
Muehlegg had become the toast of Spain, even fielding congratulations from King Juan Carlos following his success in Salt Lake City.
"The Greatest!" read Sunday's headline in the Marca daily above a huge front-page color photo of "Juanito" winning the 50K.
Before 2002, Spain had won only two Winter Olympic medals: the gold won by Francisco Fernandez Ochoa in the 1972 slalom and the bronze won in the same event 20 years later by his sister, Bianca Fernandez Ochoa.
Muehlegg competed in three Olympics for Germany, but began having troubles with the country's ski federation in 1993. Relations with his coaches, teammates and trainers deteriorated, and he left in 1998.
He sought Spanish citizenship, and sat out the 1998-1999 World Cup season before he was eligible to compete for his new country. He stormed back to win the World Cup title in 2000.
Since his three-year contract with the Spanish ski federation runs out this year, there has been speculation that Muehlegg might one day go back to competing for Germany, where he lives most of the time.
Muehlegg has drawn scorn from some in Spain, including its only previous Olympic skiing champion.
"Now he is almost Spanish," Francisco Fernandez Ochoa said after Muehlegg's third gold. "If he had really been Spanish, I would have gotten drunk to celebrate."
After learning of the positive drug test, Fernandez Ochoa told the Spanish Efe news agency that he regretted his earlier statements and supported Muehlegg "more than ever."
"I'm sure that if the positive test is confirmed there will be jerks who will say he isn't Spanish," he said.
Copyright 2003 Reuters Limited. All rights reserved.