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Saturday, February 23, 2002
 
Muehlegg passes drug test, then wins 50K

Associated Press


MIDWAY, Utah -- After winning his third gold medal of the Winter Olympics, Johann Muehlegg expected to be warmly embraced as a true son of Spain.

Johann Muehlegg
After falling behind by nearly 39 seconds, Spain's Johann Muehlegg had a burst of energy and rallied for gold.

Instead, the German-born cross-country skier drew sideways glances from the media for two prerace blood tests and an almost mocking request to answer a query in his limited Spanish.

Muehlegg failed, then passed, the blood test before staging a strong comeback over the final 10 kilometers of the 50K classic-style race Saturday, overtaking Russia's Mikhail Ivanov for the gold. Estonia's Andrus Veerpalu won the bronze.

"I race today for Spain," said Muehlegg, who became a Spanish citizen in 1999 after a falling out with the German ski federation.

A Spanish reporter asked Muehlegg whether he would like to thank anyone for his success, which is unprecedented for Spain at a Winter Olympics. Muehlegg, who has learned just enough Spanish to get by, started to answer in English before the reporter stopped him. "En Espanol," he requested.

"Many thanks to the people of Spain and to the king of Spain," Muehlegg said through an interpreter.

Then came the questions about the blood test. Muehlegg was among 13 men selected at random to be tested for high levels of hemoglobin, an oxygen-carrying molecule found in red blood cells that can increase endurance. Muehlegg's levels were above the limit for the first test, but beneath the threshold for a second test administered five minutes later.

"The blood was going up, but finally it was not a problem," Muehlegg said.

Two days earlier, the Russian women's relay team was forced to withdraw from its race after Larissa Lazutina twice was tested over the hemoglobin limit. Russian officials said the drug testers were "hunting out" their athletes, and the incident cast greater scrutiny on Muehlegg.

Asked why the second test showed different levels than the first, Muehlegg responded, "I don't know if the machine is not working well." He also was asked what his levels were. "I think that's a secret," he said.

Muehlegg said a change in his diet three days before the race might have altered his blood levels, but he said the switch gave him enough energy to catch Ivanov. Muehlegg completed the Soldier Hollow course in 2 hours, 6 minutes, 5.9 seconds -- 14.9 seconds faster than Ivanov.

Muehlegg started slowly, and by the 33.4K mark, Ivanov's lead had grown from five seconds to nearly 39. Muehlegg found a reservoir of energy, though, and the 6-foot, 154-pound Ivanov couldn't match his strength.

"I think he's the strongest skier of these Olympic Games, and it's almost impossible to compete with him," Veerpalu said.

In his previous victory, Muehlegg had enough time to grab a Spanish flag from the grandstand and carry it to the finish line. This time, however, he had no such cushion. When he came across, he was doubled over in pain.

"For me, it was the toughest race ever," he said.

Muehlegg competed in three Olympics for Germany, but the troubles with his own ski federation began in 1993. Frustrated by his poor performance, he went to Munich to seek the advice of a Portugese medicine woman. She told him that someone on his team was poisoning him. Relations with his coaches, teammates and trainers deteriorated, and he left in 1998. He took the 1998-99 season off, then stormed back to win the World Cup title in 2000.

Spain was glad to have him. Before these games, the country's only Winter gold medal was Francisco Fernandez Ochoa's 1972 slalom victory. After his pursuit win, King Juan Carlos called Muehlegg to congratulate the skier Spanish fans call "Juanito."

Others consider him a turncoat, however, and Ochoa has denounced him as a "mercenary." Since his three-year contract with the Spanish ski federation runs out this year, there is speculation that Muehlegg, 31, might one day go back to competing for Germany, where he lives most of the time.

"I'm so happy to have won for those guys in Spain," he said Saturday.