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Finland reels from doping admissions

Shamed winter athletes set to hand back many medals

HELSINKI, Finland — The systemic doping of Finland's most elite athletes might not have been discovered but for a misplaced medical bag packed with syringes, needles and drugs used to manipulate blood-cell counts.

Inadvertently left at a gas station near Helsinki's airport, the bag belonged to the Finnish Ski Association. Since the bag was found last month, this flat, snowy land has been reeling from revelations that its most admired athletes and their trainers have been trying to boost performance with banned drugs.

Six of Finland's top cross-country skiers, who together brought back more than a half-dozen medals from the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Japan, have been forced to admit they took drugs that either enhance endurance or mask the effects of other drugs used for that purpose. The national team's head coach and its two doctors knew all about it. The coaches, doctors and the president of the ski association have either quit or been dismissed.

Mika Myllyla, an Olympic gold medalist in 1998 and winner of four world championships in long-distance racing, captured the national trauma in a written confession to his fans.

"My heart is broken and there is no way to describe the amount of my agony with words," he wrote. "I kneel down, admit my defeat and beg for peace for my soul."

Finland, which played host to the Nordic skiing world championships in the town of Lahti last month, is preparing to hand back many gold and silver medals. Criminal investigations have been opened; medical investigators assigned to ferret out the truth say the doping program appears to have been both sophisticated and organized.

"Snow White has been revealed as less than pristine," The Helsingin Sanomat, Finland's biggest daily newspaper, said in an editorial. "We have become accustomed to laugh behind our hands at Chinese swimmers and Bulgarian weight lifters. Finland's skiers now find themselves in the same caste, and not without foundation."

Cross-country racing is as important to Finns as baseball is to Americans or soccer is to Brazilians. With only 5 million people, vast tracts of forest and long winters, Finland has honed in on cross-country skiing as the one sport in which its athletes almost invariably bring home Olympic medals.

"Everybody feels betrayed," said Suvi Linden, Finland's minister of culture, who is also in charge of sports. "Everyone who felt joy at the success of the team now feels betrayed."

Compared with American professional sports or international soccer, remarkably little money was at stake. Myllyla earned less than $200,000 a year in salaries and sponsorship deals. What was at stake was national pride and glory.

Finland's sports doctors have long been pioneers in the science of physical stamina and endurance. Finnish doctors invented the artificial "alpine cottage," a low-oxygen room that is pumped up with nitrogen to simulate the thin air of high altitudes.

In this case, they took some of the newest ideas in sports doping and came up with refinements of their own. The drugs involved did not even surface in the work kits of sports doping until about two years ago.

Hemohes, or HES, a drug that dilutes the concentration of hemoglobin and oxygen-carrying red blood cells, must be given through a slow-drip intravenous infusion that takes 15 or 20 minutes.

Team doctors signed prescriptions for the drug. They also carried a range of other medications aimed at stopping potentially serious allergic reactions, which occur in a small number of people who take HES.

The first signs of trouble came on Feb. 17 at the Nordic world championships. One day after he had won a silver medal, Jari Isometsa of Finland admitted that he had been caught, through testing, having taken HES.

Normally, athletes want to raise hemoglobin levels, which improves their ability to process oxygen and dramatically improves endurance.

But HES was banned by the International Olympic Committee last year because officials suspected that athletes were using it to mask their use of another prohibited drug, erythropoietin, or EPO, a genetically engineered hormone that boosts production of red blood cells. It was developed for patients undergoing kidney dialysis and chemotherapy, but was quickly embraced by athletes in the mid-1990s.

Finnish athletes were among the early experimenters with EPO. Sami Heiskanen, who won the world championship in 30-kilometer cross-country skiing in 1996, acknowledged in the wake of the scandal that he had used EPO before it was banned several years ago.

Because scientists do not yet have a test to detect the use of EPO, sports officials began setting limits on hemoglobin concentrations. For skiers, the limit is 175 grams of hemoglobin per liter of blood.

Isometsa initially said at a news conference that he had taken HES to lower his hemoglobin count, which he insisted was naturally high. He said neither his coaches nor teammates had played any role; later, he admitted those statements were lies, carefully scripted with team managers.

The matter might have ended with Isometsa's news conference, had it not been for the bag.

Just three days after the news conference, the bag was handed to the police by the manager of the gas station near Helsinki's airport. Upon opening the bag, the police discovered hypodermic needles, used infusion bags for HES, prescriptions for HES signed by one of the team doctors and a variety of other drugs, ranging from Adrenalin to prednisone, an asthma medication.

At the time, Finland was still winning medals while playing host to the cross-country championships. By the time the championship ended on Feb. 25, five other members of the Finnish ski team had tested positive for HES.