Drug rumours taint Olympic opening

There was an uncomfortable sense of déjà vu yesterday as another Olympic host city found its long-awaited opening ceremony compromised by swirling rumours of drug abuse.

As at the 2004 Athens Olympics, news of doping irregularities has emerged on the eve of the Games. While the Greek authorities had to endure the suspension of their two top sprinters, Konstadinos Kederis and Ekaterina Thanou, the organisers of Italy's first Winter Olympics since 1956 have been faced with a report from one of their own officials that several athletes have tested positive in pre-Games tests. In an apparently separate development, eight Nordic skiers have been suspended for five days following high red blood cell counts.

Giovanni Zotta, an Italian representative on the International Olympic Committee's anti-doping commission, said preliminary tests by the IOC on 98 athletes had found the banned substance Erythropoietin in several samples. In reply, an IOC spokeswoman said: "This information is incorrect."

The suspension of the Nordic skiers, including Germany's Olympic relay champion Evi Sachenbacher Stehle, was described by officials as a health measure rather than a sanction.

The athletes will miss the women's and men's cross-country skiing pursuit races tomorrow. The action drew a protest from Ernst Jakob, the German Ski Federation's doctor. "We can't accept that athletes are being banned due to slightly higher blood cell counts, using the excuse of health concerns," he said, adding that Sachenbacher Stehle had a naturally higher count of red blood cells.

The Canadians are also experiencing trouble, as their ice hockey players prepare to arrive at the Games on Tuesday to defend the title they won in Salt Lake City four years ago. Canada's legendary former player Wayne Gretsky, now Team Canada's executive director and head coach of the NHL's Phoenix Coyotes, plans to travel with the team though he is embroiled in an investigation into a multi-million dollar gambling ring.

There are no such concerns for Britain, whose 40-strong team is ready to start its pursuit of the target of one medal set by its chef de mission, Simon Clegg. In a way that target has already been reached - with a gold - following the IOC's confirmation that the British curling team who won at the first winter Olympics at Chamonix in 1924 deserved to have their event upgraded from demonstration to full status.

Thus Britain's total of winter golds leaps to nine, including the one won when a few indoor winter events were appended to the summer Games of 1908. The chances of that total reaching double figures before the XX Winter Games reach their conclusion two weeks tomorrow are slim, although as Rhona Martin and her fellow curlers demonstrated four years ago, it can be done.

She will take her team back on to the ice on Monday against Denmark in the first of their round-robin matches. Earlier, a British team led by David Murdoch will take on the hosts in the first match of a campaign in which they will be hoping to draw on the experience of winning a European bronze medal in December.

"We've beaten all our opposition at different times, so we know we are capable of beating them on the day," Murdoch said.

The highlight of the first weekend will be tomorrow's men's downhill skiing event in Sestriere, where the Austrians and the Americans are poised for a mighty collision. Austria's Klaus Kroell was fastest in practice yesterday, with his colleague Fritz Strobl, the defending champion, 0.36sec behind. Daron Rahlves, the US skier who ran away with the opening run, chose not to take to the slopes on this occasion, and his colleague Bode Miller, a double silver medallist four years ago, eased off before gliding in seventh.

Austria's double Olympic champion of 1998, Hermann Maier is seeking a more productive return in this event than he managed eight years ago, when he suffered a horrendous fall.

"The Herminator" managed 18th yesterday, five places ahead of Finlay Mickel, the 27-year-old from Edinburgh who has a realistic chance of bettering the best British finish - the eighth place achieved by Martin Bell in 1988. Mickel is eager to build on his 11th in last year's world championship and 10th in last month's World Cup event in Wengen. "If I have my day of days," he said, "it is possible for me to win a medal."

Brits in action this weekend

* TODAY Biathlon, men's 20km individual: Mark Clemens (12.00-14.00 GMT). Luge, runs one and two: Mark Hatton, Adam Rosen (15.00-18.00).

* TOMORROW Alpine skiing, men's downhill: Finlay Mickel, Roger Cruickshank (11.00-12.30).

Short track speed skating, men's 1500m: Paul Stanley, Jonathan Eley. Women's 500m preliminaries: Sarah Lindsay, Joanna Williams (18.30-21.15).

Snowboarding, men's half-pipe: Daniel Wakeham (qualifying 9.00-10.30, finals 13.00-14.30).

Luge, runs three and four: Mark Hatton, Adam Rosen (15.00-18.00).

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