February 20, 2006

Austrian golds lift mood after doping saga

By Ossian Shine

TURIN (Reuters) - Three Austrian Winter Olympic golds
provided a perfect counterweight to the extraordinary doping
saga which continued to rock their team on Monday.

Michaela Dorfmeister, who won the women's super-G, and
men's giant slalom winner Benjamin Raich brought the smile back
on to Austrian faces with the Games entering its final week and
a team win in the ski jumping gave them a further fillip.

Yet the biathlon and cross-country skiing coach, whose
presence in Italy had put the Austrians in such unwanted
limelight when their bases were raided by police looking for
drugs over the weekend, still haunted the team even though he
had returned home.

Walter Mayer's admission to an Austrian psychiatric
hospital was the latest almost surreal twist to a drama which
has included a night-time drugs raid by police, a car crash, an
arrest and two Austrian athletes disappearing into the night.

"Walter Mayer is in the psychiatric hospital,
unfortunately. He's in custody to protect himself because
apparently he's said he wanted to commit suicide or something
like that. I couldn't talk to him myself," Austrian Ski
Federation president Peter Schroecksnadel told state radio ORF.

Mayer is banned from the Games over his involvement in a
blood doping scandal at the Salt Lake City Games in 2002. He
was not found during the raid.

On Sunday he crashed into an Austrian police roadblock
after refusing a breath test for alcohol. He has been charged
with civil disorder, an Austrian prosecutor said, and was
sacked by the Austrian ski federation.

The news came after an Italian prosecutor said police had
found drugs, syringes and blood transfusion equipment during
Saturday night's raid on Austrian athletes.

More than 100 syringes, 30 packs of drugs as well as
devices for transfusions and testing had been seized in the
raid on the biathlon and cross-country teams, the official

The Austrian team said later that all the drugs and medical
equipment collected was legitimate.

The International Olympic Committee are still examining the
samples they took from 15 Austrian athletes the same night, IOC
President Jacques Rogge told Austrian television.


Turin prosecutor Marcello Maddalena said the methods had
been necessary despite Austrian complaints that the raid had
ruined their preparations for the following day's events.

"You cannot announce it in advance, nor can you put on your
velvet gloves," Austrian state television ORF quoted him as

The raid was launched after the IOC tipped off police that
they suspected Mayer had been mixing with athletes.

Austrian biathletes Wolfgang Perner and Wolfgang Rottmann
were banned from the Turin Games after leaving without telling
their national committee and could also be banned from
competing at the next Winter Olympics in Vancouver in 2010.

"If they suddenly leave like that they don't seem to be
very interested in taking part," Austrian Olympic Committee
secretary-general Heinz Jungwirth told Reuters.


Austria's APA news agency quoted Perner as saying that he
fled because he was afraid he would be jailed in Italy. He said
he had been ordered to strip naked during the raid and had
refused to sign a document because it was in Italian.

"For me, it's over," Perner, who won a bronze in the last
Olympics, said. "I don't need to do biathlon ever again."

Both biathletes were coached by Mayer.

The bizarre events took the shine off glittering
performances from Raich, Dorfmeister and the ski jumping team
which included Thomas Morgenstern who collected his second
Turin Olympic title. He had won the large hill individual event
on Wednesday.

Dorfmeister had seemed not to realize she had clinched her
second gold of the Games in the super-G until silver medallist
Janica Kostelic came across to hug her. She then fell to the
ground and kissed the snow.

Raich had earlier shot down the men's giant slalom course
in Sestriere, the ice crunching beneath his skis, and stormed
to the top of an Olympic podium for the first time.

Long an Alpine skiing powerhouse, Austria also took the
bronze in both races, with Hermann Maier winning his second
medal here after taking silver in the men's super-G. Alexandra
Meissnitzer's bronze was the 32-year-old's first Olympic medal.

"I have wanted to win an Olympic race since I was a child,"
said Raich, who fell to the ground in relief when the last
skier came past the post and his title was secured.

"I am so relieved."

Medals in the ice dancing and women's ice hockey were due
later on Monday.