31 December 2013

Eero Mäntyranta Cross Country Skier 1937-2013

As part of my aim to cover minority sports in the years ahead I'm going to look into the lives of any Olympic champion who passes away. I'll also be highlighting a lesser known Olympian every Saturday.

Yesterday a triple Olympic champion Eero Mäntyranta a Finnish cross-country skier passed away. His career spanned four Winter Olympics from 1960 in Squaw Valley to 1972 in Sapporo. In total he won seven Olympic medals.

In those 1960 Games he was part of the Finland team that took gold in the 4x10km relay. Four years later in Innsbruck he took double individual gold in the 15km and 30km.

He other Olympic performances were a silver in the 4x10km relay in 1964, silver in the 15km in Grenoble in 1968, plus bronzes in the 4x10km and 30km. In 1960 he had also been 6th in the 15km,  9th then 15th in the 50km in  1964 and 1968 and 19th in the 30km in 1972.

He also won the world championships at 30km twice along with three other medals. But his life is also a microcosm of sports, genetics and drugs.

In 1972 he had tested positive for doping at his national championships but this was hushed up and only came to light after the Olympics. He had denied the doping allegations but admitted to taking hormones, which at the time of his competing were not prohibited.

But in the year that Lance Armstrong came clean about his doping the story of Mäntyranta is also a medical one. Twenty three years ago a scientific paper noted that "a 53-year-old male, whose Hb (haemoglobin) level has been 200 g/litre or greater since childhood (last measurement, 236 g/litre), has been one of the best cross-country skiers in the world, having won three Olympic gold medals and two world championships." The average for an adult male is 140-180g/L.

That subject was Mäntyranta and indeed samples for other members of his family showed that about 50% of them had the same high levels of haemoglobin. It was discovered that he and some of his family had primary familial and congenital polycythemia due to a mutation in the erythropoietin receptor gene. Quite a nice mutation for an endurance athlete to have as it can result in up to 50% more oxygen being carried by the blood to the muscles. His1964 performance saw him win by over 15 seconds the largest gap in the "sprint" distance in Winter Olympic history, the next five were all within 20 seconds following a normal distribution of performance.

The 76 year old former champion was a medical phenomena, which aided his sporting achievements. Although he later admitted to taking what is now a performance enhancer it wasn't during his time of competing a banned substance, but he didn't really need it for an advantage over his competitors as  that was built into his family DNA.

Eero Antero Mäntyranta Olympic Champion Cross-Country Skier 20 Nov 1937 - 30 Dec 2013

New Year's Resolution for my sporting almanac

This blog was initially set up to cover minority sports and sports that are not normally covered in the media. Some of that is also women's participation in some sports that the print and television media obsess only about their male counterparts.

Even reading the Guardian this year has at times been a pain as stories that I know inside out are exciting and thrilling are confined to just a paragraph in the anything else section, hidden away between the football, rugby, cricket and racing (the majority of that only the male versions).

My aim for 2014 is to produce at least one story a day on this blog. It will contain something of note. So bear with me and follow.

28 December 2013

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of sport in 2013

I'm going to try and sum up the year in sport in three overriding categories

The Good

There are many contenders for the good. England's win of the Ashes of the summer, sadly that is wiped out by their loss of them again this winter. Chris Froome winning the Tour de France in his own right, he won it with more style of his own on the bike than Sir Bradley Wiggins but with less charisma. But after years of me queuing, sometimes with the next British hope on court that day I think it has to go to Andy Murray and lifting the Wimbledon gents singles trophy.

The Bad
I could start with the way England gave up the Ashes this winter. Or maybe the weather during most of this year's Giro d'Italia, it seemed to affect anyone who took part in it for a couple of months. However, I have gone for the multiple delaminations of Pirelli's tyres that occurred throughout the season, which came to a head at the British Grand Prix in July.

The Ugly
There can only be one contender for the ugly and it happened way back in January. It came after years of denial and ended up in a series of simply yeses to questions put by Oprah Winfrey to Lance Armstrong.