Doping dispute clouds Turin countdown

TURIN, Italy – A downhill skier is led off in handcuffs after crossing the finish line for a gold medal; paramilitary Carabinieri jump onto the ice and take away a bruising hockey defenseman or chase down a pair of ice dancers. It may sound like a goofy film script, but the International Olympic Committee is worried about just such scenes at the Winter Olympics in Turin – and that has led to a standoff with Italian authorities over the country’s hardline anti-doping law. The impasse over the law, which calls for criminal penalties and possible prison sentences ranging from three months to three years for athletes and others, has cast a cloud over final preparations for the February 10-26 Turin Games. The IOC backs suspensions, not jail time, for athletes who cheat. IOC officials said last week they will conduct 1,200 doping tests in Turin, a 45 percent increase over the number in Salt Lake City for the 2002 Winter Olympics. Yet Italian authorities have refused to agree to a moratorium during the Olympics. With the 100-day countdown to the Turin Games starting tomorrow, the doping debate has overshadowed other preparations. «We can’t accept the principle that Italian laws are not valid, because there are athletes from somewhere in the world who want to be free to take doping substances,» Italian Health Minister Francesco Storace said during a visit to Turin last week. Turin is home to one of Italy’s top anti-doping prosecutors, Raffaele Guariniello, and Italy has been a pioneer in the fight against doping. A court in Turin last Thursday began considering the appeal of the club physician of Italy’s most high-profile soccer team, Juventus, who received a 22-month suspended sentence for administering banned substances to players. While no prominent athlete has gone to jail in Italy, three cyclists received six-month suspended sentences for doping during the Giro d’Italia. And Libyan leader Muammar Khadafy’s son, who plays in Italy’s top soccer league, was banned for three months for a positive steroids test and faces trial in November on charges of sporting fraud. The government supervisor of the Turin Games, Mario Pescante, who is also an IOC member, has lobbied for Parliament to approve a moratorium during the Olympics – but acknowledges that opposition from Italy’s foreign minister and other government officials is overwhelming. «The majority of public opinion sees this [moratorium] as a sign of weakness against doping,» Pescante said. «I did my duty as an IOC member to respect the Olympic charter, but my main duty as undersecretary of state is to respect national laws.» IOC and World Anti-Doping Agency officials support a moratorium. «It’s always been our view that sports should settle its own problems,» WADA President Dick Pound said in an interview with The Associated Press. «Doping in sports is a serious problem and will be dealt with seriously, but it is not criminal.» IOC President Jacques Rogge said recently that Olympic and Italian officials can reach a compromise that will maintain «full respect» for the tough anti-doping law without putting athletes at risk of being arrested. «We feel confident that a working solution will be found. There is no question about the IOC somehow taking a soft stance on doping,» Rogge said at the close of a three-day IOC executive board meeting in Lausanne, Switzerland. The standoff over the doping law has eclipsed the usual pre-Olympic focus on costs, security and construction delays – which dominated the runup to the Athens Games last summer. Italian organizers are pleased with their construction schedule and plans for massive security. They recently assigned 2,000 more police to replace volunteers amid fears of terrorism. Although construction cranes mark downtown Turin’s skyline, most venues are ready and the construction of the main hockey arena, speedskating facility and main Olympic Village are due to be completed in November. On December 8, the Olympic torch reaches Rome from Greece, and begins its journey past such landmarks as the leaning tower of Pisa and Venice’s Grand Canal. But Italy’s sluggish economy has led the government to make spending cutbacks. Security is funded directly by the government, which assured Parliament this week that the necessary «men, means and equipment» already have been assigned in an operation along the lines of the funeral of Pope John Paul II in April. Italy raised its security alert after the July 7 bombings in London, and is taking seriously purported Internet threats by Islamic militants that Italy and Britain could be attacked because they have troops in Iraq. Turin’s top anti-terrorism prosecutor, Maurizio Laudi, said authorities also are worried about demonstrations by anti-globalization protesters during the Games.

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