A largely unheralded event occurred in Lahti, Finland, last week that could have revolutionary effects on the future of cheating in sports.
When a Finnish skier, Marija-Liisa Kirvesniemi, won the first race of the World Nordic Championships she no sooner crossed the finish line than a medical technician asked her to take off her ski glove so he could stick a pin in her finger.The small blood sample was rushed to the nearby blood-testing lab, where it was tested to see if it was the proper blood type, which, in the case of an athlete, should translate to A-OK.
A-OK blood has to have the proper red corpuscle-white corpuscle ratio, and all other properties common to normal, everyday bloodstream-type blood.
The officials in Finland weren't taking the blood for the athlete's health. They weren't concerned that they might be anemic. To the contrary. The main reason for the blood testing was to determine if anyone showed an abnormally high amount of red corpuscles - the better to carry oxygen with.
In that case, they would be suspected of blood-doping, the practice of removing units of blood three- to six-months before competition, freezing it, and then replacing that blood in the bloodstream a day or two prior to the competition. Blood-doping can give a competitor a considerable edge in endurance sports, when the body not only needs a lot of oxygen, it needs a lot of oxygen right now.
The first four finishers in every race at the World Championships in Lahti had their blood tested, as did one more unsuspecting also-ran from every race during the 10-day Championships.
There were 339 nordic athletes in Finland, representing 33 nations (including the United States), and the final analysis was this:
Nobody flunked the blood test.
This didn't take anyone necessarily by surprise. The blood testing - implemented for the first time, ever, in any international competition - was publicized to the athletes well ahead of time. They knew what was coming. To fail this test you'd have to be an idiot. It was like getting ready for an open book quiz.
And, to be perfectly up front, there was the possibility that you could blood dope and still pass the test.
This, because blood testing - on this level, at least _ is in the early, experimental stages, and medical experts agreed that, while it would be easy to ascertain the appearance of foreign red corpuscles in someone's blood stream, i.e., the blood of another person or animal, it wouldn't be so easy to categorically decide that someone had too much of his, or her, own blood.
Still, they pressed on with the testing, rudimentary as it was, knowing that there were two factors that were solidly on the right side of the law. One, there was the Ignorance Factor; the athletes couldn't be sure just how much the medical technicians could tell. And two, there was the Longlasting Factor; blood, unlike urine, can be frozen and stored for just about forever.
An unsuspecting skier could get caught later on, when technology catches up with criminology.
At any rate, the races went on under the spector of both blood and urine testing, becoming, in the process, the best-tested Championships in the history of sports.
During the course of the Games, the Soviet Union took its place in the middle of the nordic pack. This was in sharp contrast to the Olympic Winter Games just 12 months previous in Calgary. There, Soviet skiers won 13 of the 24 medals available, leaving the once-dominant Scandinavians to a mere four medals. Even countries like Czechoslovakia and Italy sneaked in for a piece of the Olympic medals, leaving the Swedes, Norwegians and Finns in a state approaching apoplexy.
Blood doping was widely suspected. But, of course, impossible to prove.
In Finland, out of 30 medals available for both men and women, the Soviets won just six. The Finns won 11, the Swedes seven (all men) and the Norwegians three. The Italians didn't win any.
Perhaps it was just an off-year for the Soviets (although the CCCP's cast in Finland was virtually the same as in Calgary). And neither the hosting Finns, or the other Scandinavians present, made a public issue over the rather remarkable U-downturn done by the Soviet skiers.
Still, the implications were obvious, as was the message that blood-doping, as a crime, may cease to pay in all endurance sports, including running, swimming and cycling, as well as cross-country skiing.
After Ben Johnson's steroid conviction at the Seoul Olympics, and in the wake of the Soviets' sobering showing in Finland, chalk a couple up for the good guys.