Eight Olympic cross-country skiers, including a former gold medalist, were suspended for five days after they were found to have excessive hemoglobin levels -- the first hint of scandal at the Turin Games.
The suspensions, announced on Thursday by the International Ski Federation, FIS, last five days from the day the tests were administered. The US Ski Association said that the tests were taken on Wednesday, meaning the athletes will be barred from competition until at least Monday.
That would keep the skiers out of the first cross-country events of the Olympics -- the men's and women's pursuit on Sunday.
The IOC has said it plans to conduct some 1,200 drug tests at the games. As of Tuesday, more than 100 IOC drug tests had been conducted with no positive results.
The cross-country testing was conducted by FIS, which said it sampled 224 athletes over two days this week.
The federation said in announcing the suspensions that the competition ban is not a disciplinary action, but taken to "protect the health of the athlete."
Jim Galanes, a coach for American athlete Kikkan Randall, said there's no chance the Olympic cross-country skier was involved with illegal doping.
"There is absolutely no likelihood of that," said Galanes, the head Nordic ski coach at Alaska Pacific University. "I can guarantee it."
Hemoglobin is the part of a red blood cell that carries oxygen from the lungs to all cells and can increase endurance. Illicit strategies such as the use of synthetic hemoglobin and blood transfusions have been used by some athletes to increase the oxygen in the muscles.
Besides 23-year-old Randall of Anchorage, Alaska, the other American athlete suspended was Leif Zimmerman, 22, of Bozeman, Montana. The others were: Sean Crooks of Canada, Sergey Dolidovich of Belarus, Jean Marc Gaillard of France, Aleksandr Lasutkin of Belarus, Natalia Matveeva of Russia, and Evi Sachenbacher of Germany.
Sachenbacher won gold in the 2002 Salt Lake City Games in the women's relay, and silver in the women's sprint. She is currently seventh in World Cup rankings.
All of the skiers but Matveeva were scheduled to compete in Sunday's pursuit events.
Calls seeking comment from FIS were not immediately returned early Friday.
US Nordic director Luke Bodensteiner could not immediately be reached for comment, and the International Olympic Committee declined to comment.
John Estle, an Alaska-based official with the USSA, said there could have been up to a half-dozen instances in this World Cup season where athletes were forbidden from competing because of elevated hemoglobin levels but later cleared in follow-up tests.
"It's not unheard of," said Estle, adding that it could be caused by dehydration, if athletes have recently traveled, are working at high altitude in low humidity or have used an altitude tent.
"Any number of things can cause it -- I believe it can be a reflection of your fluid levels. It can fluctuate quite a lot," he said.
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