Japanese short-track speed skater Kei Saito vowed to clear his name on Tuesday after testing positive for a banned substance in the first doping case to hit the Pyeongchang Olympics.
The 21-year-old is the first Japanese to test positive at a Winter Olympics and he was immediately thrown out of the Games on Monday.
The case will no doubt embarrass Japan, organisers of the Summer Games in 2020, and again forces the drug issue to the fore after Russia were formally banned for state-sponsored doping.
Saito returned positive tests for acetazolamide, an unauthorised diuretic which can be used to mask powerful performance-enhancing drugs.
“I want to fight to prove my innocence because I don’t remember (taking the drug) and it’s incomprehensible,” Saito said in a statement.
The Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), which handles doping cases during the Games, said Saito had left the athletes’ Olympic Village voluntarily and would be provisionally suspended from all competition pending a full investigation.
The head of the Japanese Olympic delegation in Pyeongchang, Yasuo Saito, said the skater was the first Japanese athlete to test positive for doping at a Winter Olympic Games.
The athlete was “surprised and dismayed” by the outcome of the drugs test, he said.
Saito, a human biology student whose sister Hitomi is also competing in Pyeongchang, arrived at the Athletes Village on February 4.
He was woken up at 02:00 the following morning by doping testers who took two samples.
“Both samples tested positive,” said the head of the delegation, who is also the vice-president of the Japan Olympic Committee.
Short-track speed skater Saito was a member of Japan’s 3,000m relay team that finished third at the 2013 and 2014 world junior championships.
He was pencilled in as a substitute for the 5,000m on Tuesday and could have raced in other events in Pyeongchang.
Saito was summoned before a CAS tribunal on Monday following the positive tests for acetazolamide, a medication used to treat complaints ranging from epilepsy to heart failure.
However, it works also as a masking agent that can hide or make it harder for testers to detect the presence of doping products.
Saito said he was innocent of any wrongdoing and had been tested prior to the Games, on January 29, and been found to be drug-free.
“As for the test results this time, the only possibility I can think of is that I accidentally and unconsciously put a banned substance in my mouth,” he added.
He had no need to ingest masking agents, he said.
“I’ve never used body-enhancing drugs so I don’t think about hiding it,” he said. “There’s no merit or motive for me in using this medicine.”
The IOC and anti-doping authorities have stepped up testing for the Pyeongchang Games following revelations of a state-sponsored doping scheme at the last Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, in 2014.
The entire Russian team was banned from Pyeongchang but a loophole allowed 168 “clean” athletes to compete as independent athletes under a neutral flag.
The International Ski Federation has defended its decision to go ahead with the women’s snowboard slopestyle final on Monday despite gusting winds at the Phoenix Snow Park.
Qualification was cancelled on Sunday due to the windy conditions and in the final many riders crashed on at least one of their two runs.
Britain’s Aimee Fuller, who crashed on her second run after being caught by a gust of wind, said she felt “lucky to be in one piece” afterwards.
FIS head of communications Jenny Wiedeke was asked if the event should have gone ahead in the conditions at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics daily briefing on Tuesday.
She said: “We know there were adverse weather conditions but FIS officials monitored training extremely carefully.
“In the final itself the officials watched the wind conditions very carefully throughout. No athlete is forced to go down and compete.”
Wiedeke, asked about athletes making advsere comments about the conditions after competing, said: “The bulk of the reaction was in the mixed zone rather than directed towards FIS officials.
“I spoke to my race director. He said only one team came to him to say something (about the conditions). It wasn’t a protest that was registered. They just went to the race director and voiced their concern about the wind conditions.”
Wiedeke was not willing to say which team had registered its concern.
Alpine skiing events have been postponed and rescheduled due to the high winds and Wiedeke was asked why the same decision had not been made for the slopestyle final.
“We are talking about two venues that are separated by 50kms,” she said.
“I was at the alpine venue yesterday. It is at 1,500 metres on exposed mountainside. The Phoenix Snow Park is at 700 metres. The winds at the alpine venue were pretty much so strong that you couldn’t stand up straight. So it was a very clear decision (to postpone).
“We were also able to hold ski jumping (on Monday) which is extremely wind sensitive. Weather conditions are very localised.
“Ski jumping has very precise thresholds (for wind strength). They have wind measuring equipment. For our other disciplines it is up to our sport and technical experts to assess the conditions. We have a very experienced group of technical officials that make these decisions.”
America’s Mikaela Shiffrin will have to wait until Thursday to kick off her bid for multiple Olympic medals after the opening women’s giant slalom was postponed Monday because of strong winds.
“Due to strong winds and the weather forecast, today’s giant slalom is postponed,” FIS announced.
It was rescheduled for Thursday, with the two legs to be raced either side of the men’s downhill, FIS confirmed.
The blue riband downhill was also postponed Sunday because of high winds and an unfavourable weather forecast which saw the cancellation of Monday’s downhill training for the men’s combined event.
The forecast for the Yongpyong course, where the women’s giant slalom would have been held, was for another bitterly cold day on Monday, with temperatures of -16 degrees Celsius (3.2 Fahrenheit).
That will be accompanied by winds gusting at up to 18m peer second, lending a truly glacial chill.
“The weather forecast is not great in terms of wind,” Atle Skaardal, chief race director for women’s FIS races, admitted Sunday as he ran through initial planning for the giant slalom.
At the Jeongseon course used for speed events, the winds were so strong that the gondola used to take racers and officials up the mountain could not run for safety reasons.
The women are also reliant on a gondola, the 3.7km-long Rainbow lift.
The opening giant slalom was to be followed by Shiffrin’s slalom title defence on Wednesday and the super-G on Saturday, with the downhill, combined and team events to come in the second week of competition.
The 22-year-old Shiffrin could realistically target four of five medals at the Games, but will face stiff opposition from the likes of France’s Tessa Worley, the reigning world giant slalom champion.
“I’m a little surprised,” Worley said of the postponement.
“They told us that the Olympic giant slalom was going to be held. I was really stoked for it.
“No matter how windy it was outside, I was ready.”
Worley, who was also crowned world GS champion in 2013, added: “The decision has been quickly taken. We’ll just get back to the Olympic village as quickly as possible.”
Romain Velez, head coach of the French women’s team, said snow conditions were “very good”.
“But there’s an enormous amount of wind. It was dangerous because it was moving the gates around.
“It was a wise decision,” Velez said.
“We were expecting to experience a tough day. Finally they decided quite early on to postpone it.
“We’ll take our foot off the pedal and head off straight away to prepare to come back when the race is rescheduled.”