Nordic Worlds Erupt In Scandal!
Special Report by Jay Tegeder
March 1, 2001
While those of us in skinnyski.com country were focusing
on the American Birkebeiner, big things were happening at
one of the most storied venues in all of ski racing. The Nordic
World Championships just wrapped up in Lahti, Finland and
this time, the spotlight wasn't on the winning athletes. The
biggest doping scandal in cross country skiing history erupted
right under the famed triple ski jumps at the impressive Lahti
Ski Stadium. Lahti has hosted the World Championships four
times since 1958. However, the 2001 games were to be the most
awesome yet for the Finnish National Team. "Things aren't
always what they appear to be" according to some famous saying.
That was exactly the case in Lahti.
Finland's great Jari Isometsa, second in the Men's Pursuit,
tested positive for the banned substance HES. The drug in question
is in the class of plasma expanders which Isometsa claimed to
use after getting his hemoglobin levels above the FIS limit.
He claimed the high levels were from being at altitude (using
an altitude house) too long. However, high hemoglobin levels
can also be attained from using EPO, another performance enhancing
drug banned by the FIS. Isometsa claimed no one affiliated with
the Finnish Team knew anything about the incident. As a result
of his test results, Isometsa was banned by the FIS for two
years and his silver medal from the Pursuit was stripped away.
Jari Isometsa competing in the 10K pursuit race
at the FIS Ski Nordic World Championships, February
(Photo: AP Photo/Camay Sungu)
The doping scandal was over. Or was it? A few days later,
after the Men's Relay, Finnish skier Janne Immonen tested
positive for the same banned substance, HES. What had been
thought of as an isolated incident, suddenly became a National
Team crisis. The gold medal winning Relay Team was stripped
of its award because of Immonen's participation. Like Isometsa,
Immonen was banned for two years. Fingers were pointed and
Finnish Head Coach, Kari Pekka Kyro was asked to resign. He
waited a few days and in the mean time, the scandal began
to unfold even more. Two Finnish Team doctors resigned under
mounting pressure. The decision was made to test the whole
Finnish Team. Many thought that would put an end to the situation.
In fact, it was just the beginning. Four more athletes tested
positive for HES. Among them, World and Olympic Champion Mika
Myllyla, ageless and adored Harri Kirvesniemi, Women's Pursuit
winner Virpi Kuitunen and silver medal relay skier Milla Jauho.
According to sources, the Finnish Team thought the current
drug tests could not detect HES. They were wrong! Former U.S.
and Canadian National Team Head Coach, Marty Hall, has been
screaming about cheating in cross country skiing for years.
He was almost kicked out of the 1988 Calgary Olympics for
insinuating that the Russians might have been "doped" for
Regardless, the 2001 World Championships weren't the first
time a doping scandal had erupted on a major cross country
skiing stage. Russia's Ljubov Egorova (who finished 4th at
the recent American Birkebeiner) was banned for two years
after testing positive for banned performance enhancing drugs
at the 1997 Nordic World Championships in Trondheim, Norway.
Rumors have long been associated with the Italian Team and
their Dr. Conconi. Some say the whole Italian Men's Relay
Team in Lillehammer was "doped". Plus, the great Manuela DiCenta
had a habit of showing up at races only to suddenly get sick
or injured when the drug testers were found to be present.
Those cases were just speculated though. The Egorova incident
in 1997 and the Finnish Team results at the 2001 Worlds were
What does this all mean? First off, there are no winners
when our heroes have been found to be fallible. Many people
wonder if there are any clean athletes left in our sport.
Cross country skiing has been severely harmed by this scandal.
Sponsorship dollars, the lifeblood of any modern sport, are
in question. Also, what we have long thought to be true, North
American athletes are behind even before the races start.
On the other hand, at least our skiers now know why they have
a tough time competing. Imagine how Norway's Erling Jevne
must feel. He finished second to Mika Myllyla in races at
both the 1997 and 1999 Nordic World Championships. Maybe he
won the gold after all. In the short term, Finland will not
send any skiers to the World Cup races in Kavgolovo, Russia
on March 4th. Myllyla, Kirvesniemi, Jauho, Kuitunen, Immonen
and Isometsa have all been banned for two years. Great careers
such as Myllyla's and Kirvesniemi's have been destroyed. In
fact, Myllyla is rumored to be out of the country. Treated
like a rock star in Finland, it might be a while before he
can return to his home.
As for the rest of us, we will not have the pleasure of
cheering for Myllyla, Isometsa, Kuitunen and Kirvesniemi in
Salt Lake City. Even without banned performance enhancing
drugs, those skiers are still fast! As for the Finnish Team,
they still have Sami Repo, Pirjo Manninen, Kaisa Varis and
Kati Sundquist. However, it will take years for the Finnish
program to return to its former glory.
Sami Repo, I hope your back is strong. You now carry the
weight of the Finnish Ski Team.