February 17, 2006

Russian hit by ban, Ethiopian makes history

By Ossian Shine

TURIN (Reuters) - The first competitor to be expelled from
the Turin Winter Games for doping was hit with a two-year ban
on Friday while an African athlete made Olympic history.

Grim Alpine weather caused the women's combined downhill to
be called off and gold medallist figure skater Yevgeny
Plushenko's good fortune continued as he walked away from a car
crash unhurt.

Russian Olga Pyleva, who won the silver medal in the 15-km
individual biathlon at the start of the week, was thrown out
and stripped of her medal on Thursday after a positive doping

On Friday the 30-year-old soldier was banned by the
International Biathlon Union after the prohibited stimulant
carphedon had been found in her system.

"I want to say that I have never intentionally used any
banned substances. It is a huge and horrible mistake," she told
reporters after testifying at a hearing but before the ban was

"I hope they believe me. I have always been open. I have
spoken only the truth," she said.

Pyleva, mother of a nine-year-old son, said she had been
prescribed the drug by her private doctor who had assured her
it was safe.

A gold medallist in the 10-km pursuit at the 2002 Salt Lake
City Games, Pyleva also faces an Italian criminal prosecution,
under Italy's strict anti-doping laws though no jail time would
be served.


It was news to her.

"What? There is a case against me?," a visibly shocked
Pyleva asked reporters, adding this was going to be her last
Games and she did not want to end her career this way.

In Pragelato, Robel Teklemariam became the first Ethiopian
to take part in a Winter Olympics when he started the men's
cross-country 15-km classical event.

The 31-year-old was cleared to race on Wednesday having
served a five-day suspension for an abnormally high red blood
cell count.

"I would have finished this race even if I had to crawl on
my knees," he said after finishing 84th of 97. "It was a hard,
hard race but a lot of fun."

Andrus Veerpalu of Estonia retained his Olympic title in
the race to give Estonia their third cross-country skiing gold
medal of the Turin Games.

"It's a very small country so it's very special for us to
have three golds," he said.

While Teklemariam had been cleared to race, two Russian
cross-country skiers were given further five-day race
suspensions for continued abnormally high levels. Natalia
Matveeva and Nikolai Pankratov were banned last week for the
same reason.


A Russian anti-doping official said both instances had
nothing to do with doping.

"Matveeva has a very small increase in levels of hemoglobin
but she will most likely run in her distance because she runs
late," said Nikolai Durmanov, head of the anti-doping
inspection at the Russian Olympic Committee.

"We've taken her from the mountains to the city so that her
hemoglobin levels can fall," he told Reuters.

She is due to compete in the sprint on February 22.

He said Pankratov also has a very small increase in red
blood cell levels, but "these are the rules." He had been due
to compete on Friday in the cross-country skiing 15-km

"There is no connection with doping at all," Durmanov said.

The International Ski Federation considers the bans a
health precaution and not a sanction, saying it is designed to
protect the athlete.


Switzerland's Tanja Frieden grabbed an unlikely victory in
the women's snowboard cross after race leader Lindsey
Jacobellis of the U.S. fell on the final straight. Jacobellis
recovered to take silver while Canada's Dominique Maltais
claimed bronze.

The U.S. lead the medals table with 10 -- six of them gold
-- one more gold than Germany and Russia. Austria are in fourth
place with three in their total haul of six while Estonia are
fifth with their perfect record of three golds.

The downhill race in the women's Alpine skiing combined was
called off after just one runner with organizers hoping to
reschedule the race for Saturday.

Croatia's Nika Fleiss was blown over by a strong wind at an
early jump and although she recovered to finish the course,
with only one pole, the race was halted.

The two slalom legs of the combined are due to take place
in Sestriere later on Friday.

Poor weather was also to blame for Plushenko's crash. The
incident, between Turin and Milan's Malpensa airport, was due
to fog and involved several cars, Italian news service ANSA