Kirvesniemi, Harri

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Harri Kirvesniemi

1958-

Finnish cross-country skier

Harri Kirvesniemi and his wife, Marja-Liisa Hämäläinen, were the best cross-country skiers in Finland for many years. Hämäläinen was the more successful of the pair in terms of first-place finishes, but both consistently finished in the top five in international events for about twenty years. Hämäläinen retired in the mid-1990s, still a Finnish hero, but the end of Kirvesniemi's career was marred when he was caught up in a doping scandal involving several members of the Finnish national team in 2001.

King and Queen of Finnish Skiing

Kirvesniemi and Hämäläinen met at a ski camp in 1978. He had only graduated from high school the year before. Hämäläinen, three years older than Kirvesniemi (she was born September 10, 1955), had already been skiing for the Finnish team for several years and had even competed in the 1976 Winter Olympics, where she placed twenty-second in the ten kilometer. Kirvesniemi, who grew up in central Finland as the son of a policeman and a schoolteacher, had been skiing competitively since he was four, while competitive skiing ran in Hämäläinen's family: her father, Kalevi, won a gold medal in the fifty kilometer freestyle at the 1960 Winter Olympics.

Both Kirvesniemi and Hämäläinen hovered around third place in the Finnish national standings for several years, but Hämäläinen broke through first. In 1983 she won the World Cup title, and at the Olympics in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, the next year she took home three gold medals, winning the five, ten, and twenty kilometer events. She also won a bronze medal with the Finnish four-by-five kilometer relay team. Hämäläinen would never have another Olympics like that, but she did collect three more bronzes in her career, one with the relay team in 1988 and one each in the five kilometer classical and thirty kilometer classical in 1994. The latter two bronzes earned Hämäläinen (who was by then married and competing as Marja-Liisa Kirvesniemi) a place in the record books as the oldest female Winter Olympian ever to earn a medal in an individual event.

Kirvesniemi never won an Olympic gold medal, but he did set a record of his own: he is one of only two athletes to have won six Olympic bronze medals in his lifetime. Five of those six came with the Finnish national four-by-ten kilometer relay team, which placed third in the relay at five of the six Olympics held between 1980 and 1998. (The exception was 1988, when they finished eighth.) In 1984 Kirvesniemi also earned a bronze in the fifteen kilometer. This third-place pattern was set early in his career. As he told Sports Illustrated reporter Kenny Moore shortly before the 1988 Olympics, "I've got six bronze medals in Olympic and world championship races, and in the World Cup point totals I've been third twice. My place has always been third."

The Doping Scandal

The Finnish national team had an excellent year at the 2001 world championships, which were held in Lahti, Finland from February 15-25. But almost from the beginning their victories were tainted with suspicion. Rumors that Jari Isometsae, fourth-place finisher in the fifteen kilometer classic (held February 15) and silver medalist in the pursuit (held February 17), had had a positive test for banned drugs were circulating by the evening of the seventeenth. On the eighteenth Isometsae told reporters assembled at a press conference that he had been taking Hemohes (HEH), a newly banned plasma expander.

The men's four-by-ten kilometer relay team, composed of Kirvesniemi, Janne Immonen, Sami Repo, and Mika Myllylae, won the gold medal in that event on February 22. Immonen and Myllylae were already under suspicion: Myllylae had withdrawn from the pursuit race on the seventeenth due to feeling ill and Immonen had (apparently intentionally) broken one of his poles during the same race, and some thought that they had done these things so that they would not have to take any drug tests that day. On February 22, after the relay team's win, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) performed a surprise test on the entire Finnish team. Immonen tested positive, and as a result the entire relay team was stripped of their golds.

The scandal continued to grow. By February 28 it was known that four more skiers, among them Kirvesniemi and Myllylae, had tested positive for HEH. That day the team's coach, Kari-Pekka Kyro, admitted that most members of the team were using banned substances and that this was common knowledge. As Kyro explained, he had thought that the drug tests would only be able to detect HEH for a brief period of time after the athletes used it. After Myllylae's involvement became known he fled the country, while Kirvesniemi begged his fans for their forgiveness while fighting back tears.

Kirvesniemi was banned from competitive skiing for two years after he was proved guilty of using banned substances, and rather than try to return to competition when he would be nearly forty-five, he simply retired. Kirvesniemi then became the head of the racing department at Karhu, a ski manufacturing company that had long been among his sponsors.

The End of a Great Career

Kirvesniemi had long been considered the "grand old man of Finnish cross-country skiing," as one Web site put it, and the revelation that he had been involved in doping stunned the Finnish public. His twenty years of training and his numerous hard-fought races were immediately discounted in millions of eyes. Plus, if even someone as respected as Kirvesniemi could cheat, "[m]any people wonder if there are any clean athletes left in our sport," Jay Tegeder wrote on Adelsman's Cross-Country Ski Page. "[T]here are no winners when our heroes have been found to be fallible."

Chronology

1958 Born May 10 in Mikkeli, Finland
1977 Graduates from high school
1977-78 Spends eleven months in the Finnish army
1978 Meets future wife, Marja-Liisa Hämäläinen, at a ski camp
1980 Begins studying for a Master of Sport degree at the University of Yveskyla
1983 Hämäläinen wins World Cup championship
1984 Hämäläinen wins three Olympic gold skiing medals
1985 First daughter, Elisa, born
1994 Hämäläinen becomes only woman to have competed in six Winter Olympics
2001 Implicated in Finnish ski team doping scandal
2001 Retires from competitive skiing

Awards and Accomplishments

1998 Sets a record for number of Olympic bronze medals won in a lifetime by winning sixth bronze in the 4 × 10 kilometer relay

CONTACT INFORMATION

Address: Suksitie 50, FIN-56800 Simpele, Finland.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Periodicals

Moore, Kenny. "Show on Snow." Sports Illustrated, (January 27, 1988): 212-215.

"Sporting Digest: Drugs in Sport." Independent, (London, England) (March 7, 2001): 26.

Other

"Four More Skiers Exposed in WADA Tests." Helsingin Sanomat (international edition). http://www.helsinkihs.net/news.asp?id=20010228IE9 (January 28, 2001).

"Harri Kirvesniemi." Great Olympians. http://users.skynet.be/hermandw/olymp/bioki.htm (January 21, 2003).

"Manuela Bosco." International Association of Athletics Federations. http://www2.iaaf.org/wjc00/Athletes/Bosco.html (January 22, 2003).

"Marja-Liisa Hämäläinen." Great Olympians. http://users.skynet.be/hermandw/olymp/bioh.htm (January 21, 2003).

"Marja-Liisa Hämäläinen." International Olympic Committee. http://www.olympic.org/uk/athletes/heroes/bio_uk.asp?heros=78514 (January 21, 2003).

Stange, Erik. "Ski Equipment Companies Take Stance on Doping." FasterSkier.com. http://www.fasterskier.com/news/021001SkiCompanies.html (January 21, 2003).

Tegeder, Jay. "Nordic Worlds Erupt in Scandal! Adelsman's Cross-Country Ski Page." http://www.skinnyski.com/racing/articles/intlracing1.html (March 1, 2001).

"2001 World Championships: Lahti Finland, February 15-25." Australian Cross Country Skiing Website. http://www.hoppet.com.au/xc/xcfiles/reports/r_0001_doping.htm (March 1, 2001).

Sketch by Julia Bauder

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