Friday, July 8, 2011

Finnish cross-country skier Mika Myllylä, a six-time Olympic medalist, including one gold, has been found dead. He was 41. Police said he was alone at his apartment in Kokkola and no crime is suspected. His cause of death remains unclear.

Born 1969 in Oulu, Myllylä won Olympic silver at the 50km cross-country race in Lillehammer, Norway in 1994, and gold at the 30km cross-country race in Nagano, Japan in 1998. These two Games netted him four bronze medals. The 1999 World Championship in Austria saw him win three gold medals and one silver. This and other World Championships saw him gain a total of nine World Championship medals.

It was at the 2001 World Championships in his native Finland that things went wrong for Myllylä. A Finnish Ski Association bag was accidentally left at a petrol station close to Helsinki’s International Airport; it was handed in to police, who discovered needles, infusion bags and a prescription for banned drug Hemohes (HES) signed off by a team doctor.

HES had been banned the previous year by the International Olympic Committee because it reduced hemoglobin concentration and oxygen-carrying red blood cell counts; this allowed it to mask the presence of banned drug erythropoietin (EPO), which raises red blood cell production. Last year Myllylä provided a court with a sworn statement confirming he had used EPO in the decade preceding the controversy.

Myllylä and five other Finnish skiers tested positive for HES in what became a national scandal; the Finnish Ski Association’s president, and the team’s doctors and coaches left or were sacked. Myllylä was handed a two-year sporting ban, after which he returned to competitive skiing; although he twice won the national championships, he gave up in 2005.

A champion has passed into eternity

These events changed Myllylä, according to longtime friend and national cross-country skiing association chair Reijo Alakoski. “He should be remembered as a great athlete… Mika changed completely as a person on the day his doping was made public. It has been sad to watch his descent and anguish from the sidelines over the last ten years.” His passing “is a dark day in the history of Ostrobothnian cross-country skiing,” said Alakoski.

Since then his personal life has been difficult. Drink-driving convictions came in 2008 and 2010 as Myllylä fought alcoholism, and he was thrice convicted of assault. He and his wife Suvi were divorced in 2007.

“A champion has passed into eternity,” according to ex-Finnish Ski Association CEO Jari Piirainen. “Although Mika will of course be remembered for his sporting achievements, we should of course remember that he was also a father.” Piirainen also reflected on media attention towards Myllylä: “Maybe it’s just… how much pressure we put on our idols and sportsmen. And how do we deal with them when they are at the top – do we accept that people are people and accept that everyone makes mistakes, and forgive them?”

Everyone who felt joy at the success of the team now feels betrayed

Piirainen himself was caught up in the doping scandal after a news story into Finnish doping led to a libel case. Piirainen’s statements in court led to him facing a fraud trial, but he was cleared.

“My heart is broken,” Myllylä said when his doping was exposed “and there is no way to describe the amount of my agony with words. I kneel down, admit my defeat and beg for peace for my soul.” The then-culture minister, Suvi Linden, said at the time “Everyone who felt joy at the success of the team now feels betrayed.”

Myllylä fathered three children, whom he is survived by.