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Salt Lake City, Utah Feb. 25, 2002 (AP by Larry Siddons)–Olympic leaders have a stern warning for athletes using performance-enhancing drugs.

“We are on their heels,” Dr. Arne Ljungqvist said Sunday in announcing the games’ biggest drug bust since Ben Johnson and giving the Salt Lake City Olympics a final jolt of controversy.

Three cross-country skiers, including multi-medalists Larissa Lazutina of Russia and Johann Muehlegg of Spain, were thrown out of the Winter Games and each stripped of a gold medal for using a drug designed to help kidney patients avoid anemia.

The drug, darbepoetin, boosts the production of red blood cells that carry oxygen to muscles. It is so new that it isn’t on the International Olympic Committee’s list of banned substances, but officials said it was covered as a “related substance” and acted swiftly.

“This is a strong statement to those who say we are far behind,” said Ljungqvist, chief of the IOC’s medical commission.

Also testing positive for the drug was Olga Danilova, a teammate of Lazutina.

All three athletes were tossed out of the games on the final day of competition. They were the first Winter Olympic athletes caught for drugs since 1988, and the biggest stars involved in an Olympic drug scandal since Johnson tested positive for steroids after winning the 100 meters at the 1988 Summer Games in Seoul.

Lazutina, 36, was forced to give up her victory in Sunday’s 30-kilometer classical race and her record-tying 10th Olympic medal. She was allowed to keep the two silver medals she won in the 15K freestyle and the 10K combined event.

After Lazutina’s disqualification, silver medalist Gabriella Paruzzi of Italy was awarded the gold in the 30K. Stefania Belmondo of Italy got the silver and Bente Skari of Norway moved up to bronze.

Danilova was disqualified from an eighth-place finish in the 30K, but she will keep a gold and silver won earlier.

Muehlegg, who had won three gold medals at these games, was ordered to return the one from Saturday’s 50K classical race. He keeps his golds from the 30K freestyle and the 10K pursuit.

The IOC said it could not strip the other medals because the athletes had passed those drug tests.

But IOC president Jacques Rogge said those medals are tainted.

“Technically, they are Olympic champions,” Rogge said. “Morally, it is a totally different issue.”

Coming into the Salt Lake City Games, only five drug cases had been confirmed since the first Winter Olympics in 1924. But for Salt Lake City, officials set up most rigorous Olympic testing program ever.

Darbepoetin is similar to the banned hormone erythropoietin, or EPO. Marketed by Thousand Oaks, Calif.-based Amgen Corp. under the name Aranesp, it was approved in September by the Food and Drug Administration to help patients with chronic kidney failure battle anemia.

Muehlegg, 31, said he could not understand the test results.

“I’ve been skiing for 10 years in World Cups and I’ve been through 25 controls, and there’s never been a problem,” Muehlegg told Spanish radio.

He had been picked to carry the Spanish flag at the closing ceremony, but was replaced by skier Maria Jose Rienda Contreras.

The Royal Palace called off a welcome-home reception for Muehlegg on Monday and said Wednesday’s scheduled ceremony for Muehlegg would be put off until further notice, but gave no reason why.

The Spanish and Russian Olympic delegations challenged the process by which the test results were validated. All three positive results came from out-of-competition tests on Thursday.

Lazutina was disqualified from the women’s relay that day for high levels of performance-boosting hemoglobin, a blood molecule that helps carry oxygen to muscles. She passed another test Sunday, allowing her to compete, but then the results from another sample were announced.

“It was a shocking experience,” she said. “That trragedy on Thursday made me more determined to work hard.”

Vitaly Smirnov, an IOC vice president from Russia, said the Russian team would appeal the decision to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

The German-born Muehlegg had become the toast of Spain, fielding congratulations from King Juan Carlos following his success in Salt Lake City.

But after the test results showed he had taken darbepoetin, he was called before the IOC’s disciplinary panel Sunday, along with Spanish Olympic officials and the team doctor.

Muehlegg’s disqualification means Mikhail Ivanov of Russia will trade in his 50K silver for gold, while Estonia’s Andrus Veerpalu moves up to silver and fourth-place finisher Odd-Bjoern Hjelmeset of Norway gets the bronze.

Muehlegg competed in three Olympics for Germany but began having troubles with the country’s ski federation in 1993. Relations with his coaches, teammates and trainers deteriorated, and he left in 1998.

Copyright © 2000 The Associated Press