When the difference between fortune and failure is measured in fractions of a second, finding a way to win can tempt an athlete to test the boundaries of fair play.
Whether it’s a deliberate shot in the arm or an innocent cold pill, bending or breaking the rules of competition has been around as long as sport itself.
In some instances, like freestyle skiing or curling, where pure skill far outweighs lung power, cheating isn’t considered a big factor.
However in endurance sports like speed skating, cross-country skiing and biathlon, there’s a worrying history of skullduggery through drug use — a trend that’s given rise to squads of medical experts collecting blood samples and statistical analysis of spikes in the oxygen content of red blood cells.
Here’s a look at how cheaters try to prosper in some Olympic sports:
More than a few competitors harbour paranoia that opponents have doctored their sled runners.
Sleds and metal runners are jealously guarded from prying eyes and gold medals are sometimes viewed with jaundiced eyes by competitors.
Just recently Canadian skeleton slider Jon Montgomery wondered aloud why the German World Cup team had slow times out of the starting block – usually a killer blow when trying to build up momentum down the track – but somehow managed to soar among the leaders by race’s end.
Veteran Calgary slider Jeff Pain, who raced skeleton for years before it was a recognized sport in the Olympics in 2002, said it has become more like auto racing, where tiny improvements in material can overshadow driving talent.
“It certainly used to be like that, where the best athlete would win, but I think our sport has unfortunately evolved beyond that,” said Pain.
Hot steel led to the first Olympics disqualification – the U.S. men’s bobsled team at the 1994 Lillehammer Games.
Brian Shimer’s foursome was all set to rock the podium with a new custom designed $500,000 Bo-Dyn sled and $5,000 German runners. But a pre-race test found that three of the four runners were too hot – one almost a degree warmer than the maximum of minus-4.5 C
The U.S. coaches blamed a faulty heat gauge and the hot Norwegian sun.
At the 2006 Games in Turin, a German newspaper reported Andre Lange’s gold-medal winning bob teams were using plasma-immersion implants on their runners, making them harder and faster.
Lange denied all, but Canada’s Pierre Lueders spoke for the cynics: “We’re not stupid. If that’s how they want to play, whatever.”
Pain has complained going into the Vancouver Games that his German skeleton competitors are illegally attaching magnets to their sleds to propel them faster down the course. He believes the magnets are shock-absorbing. The Germans have denied using magnets.
In ski races, where the top 30 contenders can be within 60 seconds of one another over 15 kilometres, the temptation to use erythropoetin, or EPO, is huge.
This genetically engineered version of a natural hormone made by the kidney stimulates bone marrow to make red blood cells, and it started to emerge in the Salt Lake City Olympics in 2002.
Jim Stray-Gunnersen, a U.S. physician who helped develop blood-doping testing programs in the 1990s, says effective blood doping can take endurance athletes from 30th place to the podium. Others say the boost is far less noticeable.
Canadian Pierre Harvey, a cross-country skiing star of the 1980s, still wonders how Russians who he could defeat soundly before and after the Olympics surged past him at the Calgary Winter Olympics in 1988.
At the time athletes were using blood doping, where they transfused higher oxygen content blood into their bodies weeks before a key competition.
“When I see four Russians in the top six . . so close to the top, it’s just not normal,” said Harvey. “The next weeks after the Games I won several World Cups, but in the Olympics I was 14th.”
World Cup biathlon leader Ekaterina Iourieva and former world champions Dmitri Yaroshenko and Albina Akhatova were suspended from competitions last March at the world championships in South Korea after positive tests for a new generation of EPO, the banned blood-oxygen booster.
Iourieva said she hadn’t taken any substances, and Akhatova has also denied taking any substances.
It’s part of a long history of doping in biathlon.
Russian Olga Pyleva lost her silver medal at Turin in 2006 for a positive test, while two Austrian biathletes left Turin in 2006 after police raided the biathlon and cross-country team bases and arrested former coach Walter Mayer, who had been banned from the 2006 and 2010 Olympics for drug offences at Salt Lake City in 2002.
Wolfgang Pichler, coach of the Swedish biathlon team and a critic of doping, has claimed he was threatened with death in e-mails originating from Russia after he called for the entire Russian team to be banned from the 2009 world championships and the 2010 Olympics.
In days gone by, there were accusations teams would take advantage of their corn brooms to leave behind pieces of straw on the ice to interfere with rocks. But these days push brooms are made of synthetic material and leave no residue.
That doesn’t mean, however, that curlers have a 100-per-cent clean record at doping control.
Canada’s Joe Frans tested positive for cocaine at the 2005 Brier in Edmonton, while American Mitchell Marks was fingered in 2005 for failing to take an assigned test.
German curler Martina Tichatschke was suspended for missing a pair of doping tests — once while she was on vacation outside the country and again when she said she missed the call because her cellphone was off.
Failing to submit to a drug test carries the same penalty as a positive test result.
Figure skating has long been fraught with scandal and innuendo about nefarious backroom dealings.
The sport hit an all-time low at the 2002 Olympics when French judge Marie Reine Le Gougne admitted her role in a marks-trading conspiracy with a Russian counterpart that left Canadian pairs team Jamie Sale and David Pelletier with silver.
Sale and Pelletier were later awarded gold, but the controversy rocked the Salt Lake City Games, and led the sport to try and clean up its act. The International Skating Union developed a new judging system — the Code of Points — that utilizes instant replay and awards set marks for virtually every movement in a program.
“I think it’s fair,” said three-time Canadian champ Patrick Chan. “I think it’s come along a lot, I think everything is much better in the new system.”
Mike Slipchuk, Skate Canada’s high performance director, points to Canadian Jeff Buttle’s gold medal at the 2008 world championships as proof the new system is working.
“Since the changes were made in the system in 2004, 2005, we’ve had new world champions every year,” Slipchuk said. “Jeff won because of the system, on those two days he deserved to be world champion. Would that have happened before? I don’t know.”
In the NHL, players tend to try to bend the rules when it comes to their equipment.
The most obvious example is the curve on a player’s stick, which most famously came to light during the 1993 Stanley Cup final when the Montreal Canadiens had the referee measure the stick of Kings enforcer Marty McSorley late in Game 2. McSorley’s stick was deemed to be illegal and the Habs tied the game on the ensuing power play before winning in overtime — changing the entire series as Montreal wouldn’t lose another game.
International rules on stick blades are a little different. The NHL allows a curvature of three-quarters of an inch, while the International Ice Hockey Federation only allows 1.5 centimetres (0.6 inches). The two used to be similar but the IIHF did not follow the NHL when it increased the permitted curvature in 2006.
The rules governing the size of goalie equipment are the same in both the NHL and the international game.
A handful of hockey players have tested positive for banned substances in recent years. New York Islanders defenceman Sean Hill was suspended 20 games in April 2007 for violating the league’s performance-enhancing drug policy — the only player to do so.
Hill tested positive for the anabolic steroid boldenone. He denied taking any performance-enhancing drugs, saying he had taken a testosterone booster for which he had been given an exemption by the league drug program.
The Minnesota Wild, who subsequently signed him to a free agent contract, said boldenone can be ingested inadvertently through health supplements and foods.
Defenceman Bryan Berard of the Columbus Blue Jackets and Colorado Avalanche goalie Jose Theodore both failed out-of-competition tests administered by their respective national anti-doping organizations. But neither was suspended by the NHL because the failed tests happened before the league established its current policy coming out of the lockout.
Berard’s urine test in November 2005 showed traces of the steroid 19-norandrosterone. He was banned from international competition for two years. He was tested by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency because he was on the U.S. Olympic hockey preliminary roster for the 2006 Turin Games.
Theodore, who was on Canada’s preliminary 81-man Olympic eligibility list for the 2006 Games but not named to the final squad, failed a doping test in December 2005 when his urine sample tested positive for finasteride, often used to mask steroid use.
The two main areas in which skaters can gain a competitive advantage without taking a banned, performance-enhancing substance is through enhancements to their skates and skinsuits.
There are few rules relating to both, meaning teams have some leeway to try and make technical advancements. Skate blades, for instance, must not be heated in any way, but athletes are free to experiment with the stiffness of the boot or how much to “rocker” the blades — rounding the tips to influence how much of the blade touches the ice.
The skinsuit, meanwhile, must conform to the natural shape of the body and cannot alter the shape of the skater’s body. Stripes are permissible — they can help funnel air around the body and reduce drag — but cannot exceed certain dimensions.
There have been doping issues. In November, five-time Olympic speedskating champion Claudia Pechstein lost her appeal against a two-year ban for blood doping.
The German skater never tested positive for a banned substance and denies doping, but has never adequately explained why she returned blood samples with abnormal levels at the world all-round championships last season.
In December, Canadian speedskating coach Ingrid Paul found herself facing bribery allegations stemming from the 2006 Olympics. Poland’s Katarzyna Wojcickatold Dutch broadcaster NOS that Paul and Dutch skater Gretha Smit offered her 50,000 euros to drop out of the women’s 5,000 in Turin.
Smit was the first alternate in the race and would have competed in the event had Wojcickawithdrawn. Paul denies the allegation, which is under investigation by the Royal Dutch Skating Union and the Dutch Olympic Committee.
Not all who run afoul of the rules do so intentionally.
American gold medal contender Zach Lund missed his shot at gold four years ago at Turin when he was sent home just hours before the opening ceremonies after a positive drug test.
For years, Lund had been taking Propecia, a hair-loss treatment, and would declare it routinely on his drug-testing forms.
He opted not to in 2005, figuring it was no longer on the banned-substances list, but did notify the U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation.
The drug designation for finasteride, the active ingredient in Propecia, changed that year and Lund was suspended, even though everyone agreed he was not trying to cheat.
The World Anti-Doping Agency subsequently removed finasteride from the banned list, saying it no longer served as a steroid-masking agent.
Lund is back at the Games in Vancouver, armed with a sharp sense of irony: he’s sponsored by Headblade, a specially designed razor used for shaving one’s head.
Canadian Jeff Pain, however, has accused his German skeleton competitors of attaching magnets to their sleds to propel them faster down the course.
“My belief is they’re creating a magnetic field that provides dampening (or) shock-absorbing,” the 39-year-old Calgary slider, a two-time Olympian, said Wednesday.
“If you read the rules it says no electromagnetic fields. That’s how I would define (the magnets).”
The FIBT — short for Federation Internationale de Bobsleigh et de Tobogganing — is the sport’s governing body and will inspect and sign off on sleds during the Olympics.
Cheating is almost unheard of in short-track speedskating, but athletes do talk about cases of suspected “team skating.” The practice is very difficult to prove, but in the rule books it refers to skaters on the same team agreeing amongst themselves to a race strategy on the ice.
For example, one skater could work to block the passes of other athletes so that a teammate finishes well or so that both finish in the top spots.
“If there are two skaters from the same country in the race, you can usually tell they’re working together and they’ve planned the race out before, which is supposedly not allowed but it happens,” says Canadian Olympic team member Jessica Gregg of Edmonton.
“I guess the Olympics are big, so if there are two skaters from a country you can try to see if they’re working together or not. It’s hard to tell because maybe they’re just strong skaters and they just won their race, one and two.”
There are two types of team skating: intentional infractions such as impeding another skater to help a teammate win, or allowing another skater to win or place better in order to manipulate the points awarded during a competition.
There have been almost no cases of this called as referees and judges would be hard pressed to come up with the proof of collusion. The best-known incident involved Canadian Michel Daignault, who was disqualified during a world championship in 1985 for alleged team skating.
Daignault, who is also a former Olympian, said he and the referee still laugh about it now because they agreed later the call was a mistake.
“You can see it, but you cannot prove it, because to prove it skaters would have to talk to each other, and since (any collusion) it’s prepared way in advance , then they don’t talk,” said Daignault.
In a well-publicized battle, an American speedskater accused star Apolo Ohno and two other athletes of fixing a race so that friend Shani Davis (now a long-track star) could make the team for the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City. The complaint was eventually dismissed in arbitration.
At Nagano in 1998, Canadian giant slalom snowboarder Ross Rebagliati grabbed international headlines when he had his gold medal yanked away after testing positive for marijuana on a drug test.
Officials later returned Rebagliati’s gold _ the first ever Olympic snowboarding medal _ when they realized that pot was not on the list of banned substances at the time.
It has since been put on the banned substance list.
— Compiled from material gathered by Olympic reporters Dean Bennett, James Bisson, Andy Blatchford, Shi Davidi, Jennifer Ditchburn, Lori Ewing, Bill Graveland, Chris Johnston and Michael Tutton.