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Skiers suspended over blood tests

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Winter Olympics
Cross-Country Skiing
Torino

TORINO, Italy -- Eight cross-country skiers including an Olympic gold medallist and two U.S. team members have been banned for five days after tests showed they had an abnormally high red blood cell count -- which could boost endurance.

The suspensions drew a swift response from the the German team at the Winter Games who have launched an appeal with the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

The suspensions started on Thursday and run until Monday when the eight will be tested again. If the levels remain high they face a further five-day ban.

The Winter Olympics cross-country programme opens on Sunday with two races followed by two more on Tuesday.

Among the athletes is German Evi Sachenbacher Stehle, 25, who won a gold medal in the women's relay and a silver in the women's sprint in Salt Lake City.

"My first thought was...I will miss my most important race on Sunday,'" said Sachenbacher Stehle - before breaking down in tears at Pragelato, venue for the cross-country races.

German cross-country team captain Jochen Behle hit out at the FIS, saying: "They do whatever they want. It's disgraceful. We got the news at around nine o'clock this morning, after it had already been reported by German media."

But International Olympic Committee chief Jacques Rogge backed the tests.

"We support the tests. The reason for the tests is to protect the health of the athletes. These are health tests, they are not doping tests," said Rogge.

The other athletes named by the FIS are Sean Crooks (Canada), Sergey Dalidovich (Belarus), Jean Marc Gaillard (France), Alexsandr Latzukin (Belarus), Natalia Matveeva (Russia), Kikkan Randall (U.S.) and Leif Zimmermann (U.S.).

"This is not a sanction but a health measure," said FIS secretary general Sarah Lewis. "When haemoglobin is too high, there is a risk the blood will be too thick and there could be a clot and obviously that could be a danger."

She added: "Haemoglobin levels can be affected by altitude training or the use of agents to boost haemoglobin."

A German ski federation doctor said Sachenbacher Stehle had a naturally higher count of red blood cells.

"We can't accept that athletes are being banned due to slightly higher blood cell counts, using the excuse of health concerns," said Ernest Jakob.

"Here we have a case of health concerns being used to justify these blood tests, while the real aim is to avoid blood doping."

German cross-country team doctor Ullrich Schneider described Sachenbacher Stehle as sad and crushed.

"Athletes prepare for four years for this event and then they have to take part in this kind of lottery," he said.

Sachenbacher Stehle, who won gold and silver at the 2003 world championships in Val di Fiemme, had been due to race in the women's 15km pursuit on Sunday.

Providing she passes Monday's second test, she will still be able to compete in the women's team sprint on Tuesday.

A French Nordic skiing team chief said France's Gaillard, a relay substitute, also had produced high levels naturally.

"In the past, we have sent his file to WADA," said Jean-Pierre Burdet. "We have sent it again and are awaiting an answer."

The men's 30km pursuit is also on Sunday.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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