The shadow of previous doping scandals hangs over the opening of the Winter Olympics in Turin Friday after eight athletes were given suspensions to clear up questionable test results.
Will doping cast a shadow over the Olympics?
As athletes and officials were preparing for the inaugural ceremony launching two weeks of Olympics, the ugly specter of doping threatened to tarnish all the winter glamour. Just as with the Summer Olympics in Athens and the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, doping accusations stole the spotlight.
According to an Italian official, several athletes have tested positive for doping in pre-Games drug checks. The International Olympic Committee, however, has rejected the statement.
The Olympic Village in Turin
Giovanni Zotta, a representative on the IOC's anti-doping commission, said preliminary tests on 98 athletes found the banned substance Erythropoietin (EPO) in several athletes.
"So far there have been cases of EP in several athletes, but it must be confirmed," Zotto told Reuters. He declined to give any names and said subsequent tests were required to confirm initial results.
The IOC dismissed Zotto's claim.
"This information is incorrect," it said Friday.
EPO, which boosts the number of red blood cells carrying oxygen, helps improve muscle stamina. It is used particularly by athletes in endurance sports. In previous Olympics, several athletes have been banned from competition after traces of EPO were detected.
In an apparent separate development, eight Nordic skiers, including German Olympic gold medalist Evi Sachenbacher, were suspended for five days after tests showed they had an abnormally high red blood cell count.
The slopes are ready for the Olympics
The cross country skiers – three women and five men – were found to have hemoglobin values that were "too high" in pre-competition blood testing, the International Skiing Federation (FIS) announced late Thursday. As a result, the officials decided to bar the skiers from the starting line-up for five days, effectively excluding them from the first races on Sunday, the women's 15km and the men's 30km.
Officials were careful to formulate their words on Friday, saying the ban was a health measure, and not a doping-related sanction.
"The prohibition from participating in the competitions is not a sanction, but is considered to serve to protect the health of the athlete," said Sarah Lewis, Secretary General of the FIS, which conducted the tests.
Evi Sachenbacher on Friday
Sachenbacher said she was disappointed and didn't understand why she wasn't allowed to race on Sunday.
"I never did anything wrong," she told journalists.
German ski federation doctor Ernst Jakob protested the decision.
"We can't accept that athletes are being banned due to slightly higher blood cell counts, using the excuse of health concerns," he said, adding that Sachenbacher had a naturally higher count of red blood cells and should not have been banned.
"Hemoglobin levels can be affected by altitude training or the use of agents to boost hemoglobin," such as EPO Lewis said and acknowledged that in some instances athletes may naturally have blood cell counts that exceed specified limits. If that is the case, they need to present a certificate and be checked by an FIS-appointed specialist, she said.
Further blood and urine tests will be carried out by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). Under the IOC rulebook, athletes are allowed to return to competition after their five-day suspension, subject to the results of a new blood test.
Italian officials will be watching the outcome of doping tests very closely. Whereas the IOC has said it does not yet foresee tough sanctions, Italy has tough anti-doping laws that call for criminal proceedings and possible prison sentences.