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Seeking an edge, cheating US skier places Nordic world on edge

Kerry Lynch, who was regarded as the top US hope for a skiing medal at next month's Winter Olympics, has been banned from the Games and stripped of his Nordic Combined world championship silver medal by the International Ski Federation (FIS, to use the French acronym). Lynch admitted last month that he had engaged in the forbidden practice of blood-doping at the 1987 Nordic world championships. The stiff penalties handed out by the FIS came as no surprise when notification reached the United States Ski Association at Colorado Springs, Colo., this week. But they seemed doubly harsh in contrast to the ``slap on the wrist'' the USSA and the US Ski Team had administered earlier.

Critics of the two organizations' current leadership have expressed everything from sadness to outrage over an apparent unwillingness to take a tough, uncompromising stand against athletes and coaches who cheat.

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When the blood-doping incident surfaced in late December, a full nine months after the event - and reportedly as a result of internal squabbling among coaches over the possibility of Lynch's coach being promoted - an investigative panel headed by US Ski Team president Thomas Weisel issued the following penalties:

Lynch was ``suspended'' for five days (although he was allowed to go to Europe to train and race), and he was asked to return $1,200 in training funds to the US Olympic Committee.

Nordic Combined director Doug Peterson, who arranged for the blood-doping, was stripped of his job title though he would still be allowed to coach at the Olympics.

And former Nordic program director Jim Page, who approved the operation, was put on probation by his new employer, the US Olympic Committee.

In sharp contrast, and as expected, the FIS has suspended Lynch from international competition for one year, including the upcoming Olympics at Calgary. It also asked him to return the medal he won in the event for which he admitted he doctored his blood, the Nordic Combined (ski jumping and cross-country racing) in last winter's world championships at Obertsdorf, West Germany.

Both Peterson and Page have been disqualified from international competition for a year, and the US Olympic Committee was asked to replace Page as a technical delegate to the upcoming Games.

Asked for his response to the FIS action, USSA secretary-general Howard Peterson said, ``Disappointment. We had hoped very much that Kerry would have been able to ski at Calgary.''

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While agreeing that blood-doping is a serious infraction, Peterson and other US officials hold that the practice is not uncommon among some top European cross-country ski racers. (Blood-doping in this case means an attempt to increase aerobic power by extracting blood from an athlete months before a key race, preserving it, then re-injecting it on the eve of the event).

Peterson says the US has long pushed for testing for blood-doping. But the FIS has not gone along with the cumbersome and not always reliable process.

``I don't personally agree with a rule with no mechanism to enforce it,'' said Peterson. He insisted that he felt the discipline meted out by US officials was fair under the circumstances, and that he didn't think a cause was supported by making an example of one individual.''

That sort of ``everybody-is-doing-it'' excuse has angered many, despite the fact that the 30-year-old Lynch, who came back from injury and retirement to get his medal, is one of the most popular athletes on the US Ski Team.

``Lynch, Peterson and Page, desperate for a result, decided to take the low road. They cheated,'' wrote Ski Racing magazine in a scorching editorial blasting USSA and USST officials for making excuses. ``Remember, the field on which Kerry Lynch played in Obertsdorf was only level for those who blood-doped. For the cheats. It was tilted against those who played by the rules,'' said the magazine.

To their credit, Lynch and the two coaches have expressed remorse for their actions.

Former Olympic Nordic coach, athlete, and author John Caldwell called the whole ``fiasco'' ``typical of the short-term thinking of the ski team [leadership]. They haven't been looking at the long-range picture for several years.'' He charged the current management team with technical inexperience and political ineptitude.

Former Olympian and Nordic Program director John Bower was ``saddened'' by the news. ``It's certainly going along with a prevailing notion in sports, which is, `do whatever you have to to be successful. ... everybody's doing it so it's OK' - it's that mind-set that's so prevalent that if you're not careful, you can get sucked in.''

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