Skeleton Racer's Olympic Saga Ends

U.S. Olympic hopeful Zach Lund was barred from these Olympics Friday by the International Court of Arbitration for Sport. Lund — one of the world's top competitors in skeleton — was punished for using an illegal substance found in hair-loss medication.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

In other Olympic news, a dozen cross-country skiers were temporarily suspended from competition because of abnormally high levels of hemoglobin. High altitude could be the cause, but so could banned drugs, so officials will test their blood again in five days.

But one of America's top athletes won't get a second chance. Skeleton racer Zach Lund was kicked out of the Olympics and barred from the sport for a full year. He's one of the world's best in skeleton, a sport where competitors plunge down an icy track headfirst on a little sled. The International Court of Arbitration for Sport is punishing Lund for an illegal substance found in the hair loss medication he's been taking for years. We have NPR's Tom Goldman back on the line. He's been speaking with Zach Lunch in Turin. Tom, how did he react to being kicked off the team right as the Games opened?

TOM GOLDMAN reporting:

Well, understandably, not well. I met with Zach Lund and his lawyer in a downtown park this morning. He was suspended yesterday afternoon, and he said it was tough to have to quickly pack his bags and turn in his credential and leave the athlete's village on such a special day. Here's what he said.

Mr. ZACH LUND (Olympic Skeleton Racer, United States): It wouldn't have been that bad but except it's the fact that it was opening ceremonies last night, so everyone is out in their gear looking all snazzy, and I was walking out with my bags, which is kind of embarrassing in a way. A couple of hours before that, I was gonna be right there with them.

ELLIOTT: Tom, you have to have a little sympathy for this guy. Anti-doping organizations have been clear that they want to root out cheaters in sports, but yesterday the court acknowledged Zach Lund didn't cheat, yet they still kicked him out of the Olympics?

GOLDMAN: Yeah, absolutely, and that's really the significant part of this story. They kicked him out for a mistake, a mistake that Lund acknowledges. He used the prescription hair loss medication for years and he always wrote it down on his drug testing forms and for that reason he didn't have any problems. At the beginning of last year, the substance in the medication, it's called finasteride, was banned. Finasteride, reportedly can mask the presence of steroids. But Lund didn't check the banned list last year. That was his mistake. And I asked him why he didn't check.

Mr. LUND: Because after five years of checking, I felt like I was safe. I was taking a harmless thing to try to help my hair growth or keep me from losing my hair, and after five years of checking I figured, you know what, this is obviously not illegal.

GOLDMAN: Now In it's ruling, the court, which has a status of kind of a supreme court in sports said, and I quote, "It was entirely satisfied that Mr. Lund was not a cheat." End quote. The World Anti-Doping Agency, which brought the case before the court, agreed that Lund had not cheated. But the agency notes that several athletes in other sports have been banned for taking the same hair loss medication.

ELLIOTT: I understand the court had some harsh words for the agency and other anti-doping organizations.

GOLDMAN: That's right. And after finasteride was banned, Zach Lund, who says he didn't know, he kept writing down on the forms that he was using the medication that contained the finasteride, but none of the anti-doping organizations with access to those forms warned him. The international court said it had the feeling Lund was not well-served by the organizations.

ELLIOTT: Tom, what will Zach Lund do now?

GOLDMAN: Well, immediately he will go home. And he'll deal with this. He'll also deal with his hair loss, he says. He's given up the medication. He's been aiming for Turin for ten years. He says he's going to keeping trying for the next winter Olympics four years away. And in the meantime, Zach Lund says he's gauging interest among other athletes about creating an athletes union to protect their rights.

ELLIOTT: NPR's Tom Goldman in Turin. Thank you for speaking with us, Tom.

GOLDMAN: You're welcome, Debbie.

ELLIOTT: NPR's Olympic correspondents are keeping a Turin diary. Check it out at our website, npr.org.

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