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Olympic champions stripped of medals after positive drug tests


SALT LAKE CITY (AP) _ Vowing to stay one step ahead of athletes, Olympic officials stripped gold medals from two cross-country skiers Sunday for using a drug so new it's not yet on the banned list.

Cross-country skiers Larissa Lazutina of Russia and Johann Muehlegg of Spain forfeited their most recent medals after testing positive for a performance-enhancing drug intended to help kidney patients avoid anemia.

A third cross-country skier, Olga Danilova of Russia, also tested positive for the same drug, darbepoetin, which boosts the production of red blood cells that carry oxygen to muscles.

All three athletes were tossed out of the Winter Olympics on the final day of competition.

Arne Ljunqqvist, chairman of the International Olympic Committee's medical commission, said the disqualifications were a warning to athletes who think they can get away with using new drugs.

``The substance is not listed on the banned list because it is so new,'' he said. ``This is a strong statement to those who say we are far behind. We are on their heels.''

Lazutina, who tied an Olympic record Sunday with her 10th medal by winning the women's 30-kilometer classical race, was forced to give up that victory. But she will be allowed to keep two medals she won earlier _ silvers in the 15K freestyle and the 10K combined event.

Muehlegg, who had won three gold medals at these games, was ordered to return the one from Saturday's 50K classical race. But he gets to keep his golds in the 30K freestyle and the 10K pursuit events.

``I don't understand this result. I've been skiing for 10 years in World Cups and I've been through 25 controls, and there's never been a problem,'' Muehlegg said in a Spanish radio interview.

He had been picked to carry the Spanish flag at the closing ceremony, but he was replaced by Maria Jose Rienda Contreras, who finished sixth in the giant slalom.

Danilova, who earlier won a gold and a silver, was disqualified from the 30K classical race in which she finished eighth.

The IOC said it could not strip the other medals because the athletes had passed those drug tests, but IOC president Jacques Rogge said those medals are tainted.

``Technically, they are Olympic champions,'' Rogge said. ``Morally it is a totally different issue.''

Only five drug cases have been confirmed since the first Winter Olympics in 1924, none in the past three games. But officials had set up most rigorous Olympic testing program ever in Salt Lake City, so the chances of catching cheats were greater.

The Spanish and Russian Olympic delegations challenged the process by which the test results were validated. All three positive results came from out-of-competition drug tests on Thursday.

Vitaly Smirnov, an IOC vice president from Russia, said the Russian team would appeal the decision to the Court of Arbitration for Sport but would not pull out of Sunday night's closing ceremony because of the drug cases.

Since darbepoetin is relatively new, it is not on the IOC's list of banned substances, but officials said it was covered as a ``related substance.'' Darbepoetin has similar properties to the banned hormone erythropoietin, or EPO.

Darbepoetin, marketed by Thousand Oaks, California-based Amgen Corp. under the name Aranesp, was approved in mid-September by the Food and Drug Administration to help patients with chronic kidney failure.

After Lazutina was disqualified, Gabriella Paruzzi of Italy, who finished second, was awarded the gold, Stefania Belmondo of Italy got the silver and Bente Skari of Norway moved up to bronze.

Muehlegg's disqualification means Mikhail Ivanov of Russia will trade in his silver for gold, while Estonia's Andrus Veerpalu moves up to silver and fourth-place finisher Odd-Bjoern Hjelmeset of Norway gets the bronze.

Lazutina's 10th medal had tied the women's Winter Games record held by cross-country skier Raisa Smetanina, who won four gold, five silver and one bronze competing for the Soviet Union and the Russian Unified team from 1976 to 1992.

Lazutina's medal total now stands at nine.

The 36-year-old skier was disqualified from the women's relay Thursday for having high levels of performance-boosting hemoglobin, a blood molecule that helps carry oxygen to muscles. She took another blood test Sunday morning and passed, allowing her to compete before the results of the earlier test were announced.

``It was a shocking experience,'' she said. ``That tragedy on Thursday made me more determined to work hard.''

The heavily favored Russians had to withdraw from the relay. Russian officials claimed drug-testers were targeting their athletes, and the dispute led to widespread complaints of biased judging in other sports.

Russia threatened to pull out of the Winter Olympics and not compete in the 2004 Summer Games if its concerns were not addressed.

``The rules need to be changed,'' Lazutina said before the results of the second blood test were announced. ``Unfortunately we cannot change any rules. In that sense, I feel lawless. ... It's hard to get to the people who make decisions. I feel like we're treated like criminals because of those tests.''

A random urine test Thursday found traces of darbepoetin in the German-born Muehlegg, who was called before the IOC's disciplinary panel early Sunday, along with Spanish Olympic officials and the team doctor.

Before Saturday's 50K race, he was randomly selected to be tested for high levels of hemoglobin.

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 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.

Muehlegg had become the toast of Spain, even fielding congratulations from King Juan Carlos following his success in Salt Lake City.

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.
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