King Kaufman's Sports Daily

Hockey, doping scandal: Olympics' best sport, biggest story both missing from NBC prime time.


Salon Staff
February 23, 2006 10:00PM (UTC)

You wouldn't know this by watching NBC's coverage, but there's a big doping scandal at the Turin Olympics.

It started Saturday when Italian police and the International Olympic Committee raided the living quarters of the Austrian biathlon and cross-country ski teams in San Sicario and Pragelato. The authorities say they found dozens of syringes, some of them used, unlabeled drugs and a blood transfusion machine.

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The police were acting on a tip that banned coach Walter Mayer had been seen around the Austrian skiers and biathletes. Mayer was linked to blood doping in the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City, and he's barred from both the Turin Olympics and the Vancouver Games in 2010. He fled the country Saturday, then crashed into a police roadblock just inside the Austrian border.

Mayer later told an Austrian magazine that he panicked and was trying to commit suicide when he intentionally crashed because "I was completely shattered, I couldn't think clearly."

He denied that he was in Italy as a coach, saying he'd simply made a personal trip as a spectator. But Peter Schroecksnadel, the president of the Austrian ski federation, said at a news conference Tuesday that it was a mistake to have allowed Mayer to act as a private coach for team members in Turin.

Mayer also denied that he had any medical equipment or drugs. The Austrians say the seized machine was used for testing hemoglobin levels.

Police say another raid Monday night on Mayer's rented house yielded more syringes. He pleaded guilty in Austria Tuesday to civil disorder, assault and property damage charges stemming from the roadblock crash.

Meanwhile, two Austrian biathletes, Wolfgang Perner and Wolfgang Rottman, also returned to Austria, apparently fearing jail time in Italy, where sports doping is a crime. Schroecksnadel, the ski federation chief, said they've admitted they "may have used illegal methods" to get ready for the Olympics. They were kicked off the team for leaving without authorization.

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Another coach, Emil Hoch, seems to have slipped away as well.

The Turin Games have been notable for the most stringent drug enforcement ever, with 70 percent more drug tests than in Salt Lake City and drug cops leaping out of the bushes to try to catch offenders. But only one athlete has tested positive. Russian biathlete Olga Pyleva was stripped of her silver medal and sent home last week after a test turned up a banned stimulant.

Does that lone positive drug test mean the big crackdown is working and the athletes are all competing clean? Or is it an indication that for all the surveillance and raids and surprise drug tests, the drug cops are miles behind the dopers?

Well, what do you think?

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The Austrians practically erected a giant billboard saying, "Please raid us" when they allowed Mayer, a coach banned for doping, to get anywhere near their athletes, never mind work with them. The inevitable shining of the police flashlight on their business revealed all sorts of apparent doping activity, according to the cops and the IOC.

Isn't that funny. The one place that gets turned inside out and, what do you know, there are enough syringes to keep a grunge band on the road for a month. It looks to me like the Austrians, if guilty, were tellingly unafraid of the drug cops. They'd have got away with it too, if it weren't for that meddling banned coach.

I'm reminded of the major college football and basketball programs in this country. Most programs can boast of being clean most of the time, off probation and with no investigations pending. But by some odd coincidence, every time authorities have reason to look closely at a program, a bunch of violations turn up.

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So you think the Austrian cross-country skiers and biathletes are it in Turin? Think all the other living quarters of all the other athletes and coaches from Austria and from all the other countries are clean as a whistle, nothing more illicit than the odd pirated MP3 lying around?

You might be right. I'd say the circumstantial evidence points toward another explanation. If the drug war were an Olympic event, the dopers would be like Austrian alpine skiers, Russian figure skaters, Korean short-track racers.

And who would the drug cops be? You remember Eddie the Eagle, don't you?

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Curling notes [PERMALINK]

I love how Elfi Schlegel, the sideline reporter on the curling coverage, throws it back to the incomparable Don Chevrier and Don Duguid after her cut-in reports.

She says, "Boys?"

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Hockey bonanza: You missed it, right? [PERMALINK]

What a day Wednesday was for hockey fans, provided they didn't have to go to work.

All four men's quarterfinal games were carried live in the States on NBC's hench-networks. All four were over by late afternoon, EST.

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The United States and Canada were both eliminated, the U.S. losing 4-3 to Finland and the Canadians dropping a 2-0 decision to Russia. Sweden pounded Switzerland 6-2 and the Czechs beat the Slovaks 3-1 in the other games. The semifinal games Friday will be Finland vs. Russia and the Czech Republic vs. Sweden.

It's been a great hockey tournament so far, as the Olympic tournament always is. The larger ice surface gives the skaters and passers more room, so that while the games tend to be low scoring -- averaging less than five and a half goals per game -- they flow beautifully.

Also, there are no boring fights and, despite the claims of those who insist fighting is necessary to prevent cheap shots, no epidemic of cheap shots.

So it's too bad all this is kept hidden from most of the viewing public in the United States. Hockey games are way too long to run during the prime-time show, and CBS used to get pilloried for showing bits and pieces of hockey in prime time when it had the Games.

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That just drove hockey fans crazy. And even today, as far as it's fallen, hockey has more fans in the U.S. than any other Winter Olympics sport except figure skating.

NBC's solution of showing full games on cable during the day is a glorious one for hockey purists, shift workers and the unemployed, but the result is that the best competition in the Games is an afterthought on the big show.

And the result of that is that Olympic hockey, supposed to be a big publicity bump for the NHL, which stops its season for two weeks to let its players make up the national teams, is a buzz dud. Do you have any friends who are itching for the NHL season to restart because the Olympics have gotten them all fired up about hockey again? Me neither.

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Katarina Witt weighs in [PERMALINK]

Katarina Witt, the figure-skating gold medalist in 1984 and 1988, published an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times Wednesday in which she criticized the new judging system for robbing her sport of its artistry.

Under the headline "No Soul on Ice," Witt argues that while something had to be done and the new system is more fair than the old one, it has also "taken some of the emotion out of a beautiful sport."

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"When I won a gold medal in 1988 at the Calgary Games, my creativity and passion for skating came through in my program," Witt writes. "I didn't just skate to 'Carmen,' I had the time to become Carmen. People remember my performance because of its balance between technical moves and emotion. I also had time between jumps to flirt with the audience and win it over.

"I'm not sure I could have gotten away with that under today's scoring system."

I got a big kick out of Katarina Witt in the '80s. I loved the way so many people hated her. There was some Cold War psychology involved -- Witt was from East Germany, remember.

But what ticked off a lot of figure-skating fans -- or at least people who paid attention to figure skating come Olympic time -- about Witt was their perception that she didn't win because she was the best skater, but because she was the prettiest, the flirtiest.

She was the head cheerleader who bats her eyes at the math teacher to get an A.

I loved this, partly because I was 21 and Witt was easily the best-looking skater around, but mostly because these people who claimed to love figure skating were incensed at Witt for playing the game perfectly, doing exactly the things the rules called for her to do: Look pretty, be expressive, connect with the audience. She was hoisting the sport by its own sequined petard.

Witt goes on to cite Ukrainian Oksana Baiul's win over American Nancy Kerrigan in the '94 Olympics.

"Kerrigan's performance was technically superior to Baiul's," Witt writes, "but I think Baiul's personal story of tragedy and comeback was so compelling that it propelled her to the gold. She captured the judges' hearts, who decided in her favor on the emotion of the moment, and that wouldn't really happen under the new system."

Of course Katarina Witt would think it's a bad thing that that wouldn't happen now. But -- much as I loved that crazy diva back in the day -- I think it's a clear improvement that a "personal story of tragedy and comeback" can no longer trump actual ability in a sporting event, that it's unlikely someone's going to have a championship bestowed upon them because of "the emotion of the moment."

I wrote Wednesday that I like how the new judging system encourages athleticism over showmanship, or, as figure-skating people like to call it, "artistry," partly because athleticism should be paramount in athletic events and partly because the so-called artistry is mostly just lame community-theater jazz dancing.

But this is the best thing about the new system. It allows you to watch figure skating without having the feeling that the outcome's rigged.

Sorry, Katarina. I'm just not that into you anymore.

Previous column: Sasha Cohen takes the lead

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