February 21, 2006

Austrian Gloom Deepens Despite Record Success

By Ossian Shine

TURIN -- Austria picked up their eighth gold medal of the Olympics on Tuesday marking their most successful Winter Games but were still unable to escape the gloom enshrouding them over an ongoing doping saga.

Austria's Felix Gottwald, already a gold and silver medallist here, won his second gold in the day's Nordic combined event, lifting his nation to second in the overall standings.

Neighboring Germany lead the standings with eight golds, seven silvers and five bronze medals -- two more silver and bronze than Austria.

Germany had earlier won their eighth gold, re-establishing themselves as the dominant power in men's biathlon with victory in the men's 4 x 7.5-km relay.

Taking the lead after the third of eight visits to the shooting range, the German team of Ricco Gross, Michael Roesch, Sven Fischer and Michael Greis stayed comfortably in front to finish 20.9 seconds ahead of silver medallists Russia.

"It was a fantastic team performance," coach Frank Ulrich said after watching Germany take the men's relay title for the fourth time in five Games.

"It might have seemed easy but they had to fight for it and they showed great mental strength."

Thoroughly depressed by the doping saga swirling around their team, Austria's biathletes finished that race last, more than six minutes behind the Germans.

"It was very difficult for us to concentrate on the race but we did our best," said their first athlete Daniel Mesotitsch.

"What has happened over the past few days explains our result."

Austrian success on the slopes and the ice could not detract from the gloom.

The team faces a disciplinary investigation to probe possible doping violations -- whether or not a positive dope test is found.

A Monday night police search of a former coach's lodgings unearthed medical equipment useful in the investigation into possible doping violations, a police source told Reuters on Tuesday.

"Medical equipment was found in the house Walter Mayer was staying in and this material is considered useful in the investigation," the source said. It will now be analyzed further.


News then came that two Austrian biathletes, who left the Olympics at the weekend, may have used illegal methods.

Markus Gandler, the Austrian federation's biathlon and cross-country skiing sporting director, told a news conference Wolfgang Perner and Wolfgang Rottmann had told him the police confiscated something from them which "may have been illegal."

"They were scared of Italian law and they preferred to leave because something was confiscated, only from them and not from the others, and they were worried it may been illegal," he added.

The International Olympic Committee will probe possible doping violations by the biathlon and cross-country skiing teams.

The IOC was angered by Austria's decision to ignore an Olympics ban imposed on Mayer and allow him come to Turin and meet athletes.

Mayer is banned from the Olympics up to and including 2010 for his part in a blood-transfusion scandal at the Salt Lake City Games in 2002, but he was spotted near the athletes and the IOC informed police.

A night-time police and IOC doping raid on the two teams' quarters in San Sicario and Pragelato on Saturday found syringes, drugs and blood transfusion equipment. Ten of the athletes were also tested for drugs.

The Austrians claim the equipment and drugs were used for legitimate hemoglobin testing.

Perner and Rottmann could be suspended from the next Olympics because they left after the raids without telling anyone. The Austrians are also investigating why coach Emil Hoch returned to Austria without "signing out" correctly.


According to its anti-doping rules the IOC could sanction the Austrians even if none of their athletes tests positive, if there is an attempted use or possession of prohibited substances or methods.

"Yes, the IOC could still take sanctions," IOC spokeswoman Giselle Davies told reporters. "A disciplinary commission will be set up in due course, it will deal with the wider issues.

"There are issues outside the anti-doping procedures."

Mayer was until Saturday an official coach for the Austrian team and appeared on a team postcard issued for the Olympics. He had not been accredited for the Games, however.

On Monday, he was admitted to an Austrian psychiatric hospital after his arrest on Sunday for fleeing Austrian police.

In competition, Chad Hedrick missed out on 1,500 speedskating gold. Instead it went to Enrico Fabris of Italy.

Hedrick was beaten into bronze by compatriot Shani Davis who last week won the 1,000, leaving Texan Hedrick in sixth place.

Hedrick, who hoped to win five gold medals, has so far only won one gold.