SOCHI, Russia -- I like a good doping story as much as the next guy -- wait, a little more -- so here's a doozy about a cross-country skiing race possibly undecided after 2,918 days.
(Whew, they must be tired.)
A probe of undetermined seriousness centers on a reexamined sample from Kristina Smigun-Vaehi, the Estonian gold medalist in the 10-kilometer classical from Turin 2006. Everyone remembers how on February 16 of that year, she defeated the great Norwegian Marit Bjoergen by 21 seconds.
Actually, almost no one remembers this anymore save perhaps for some of the kinfolk of Smigun-Vaehi, Bjoergen and other competitors, at least those who did not dip too heavily in the Sangiovese, but anyway, it did transpire.
"It's unbelievable," the retired Smigun-Vaehi said in a statement, and boy, did she have that right. "I am now in a situation where I have to fight a new battle."
An updated test might or might not have found some previously undetected molecules, and you'd think that molecules would just give up after a while instead of insisting on perpetuity.
It's 2014, we're all grown up now, we've all shed the naivete that carried us merrily through so many years and so many home runs at Busch Stadium and Wrigley Field, and this is where we stand with doping nowadays. Our last shred of shockability might have gone burglarized by a Texan in bicycle shorts and ugly legs. We still attend sporting events because we find sporting events exhilarating and because, also, what the hell else would we do with our time?
The mind has learned to play some tricks with doping at Olympics, even if those tricks no longer include gullibility or obliviousness. For one trick, it lurches for the bright side, which is this: If an Olympian finishes in a certain place with which that Olympian is dissatisfied, that Olympian should not lose hope. There's always a chance that person could live for years more, maybe even retire, marry, reproduce and start expanding in waistline from excessive American fast foods, yet still inch upward in the distant-past standings.
Bjoergen, an icon on milk cartons in Norway -- she stared at me over cereal for several days lately -- four Olympic gold medals, three silver medals and one bronze medal. Out of all the athletes who went to Vancouver in 2010, she went home with the most gold-silver-bronze baggage, perhaps moving something a pair of shoes to the checked luggage to make room for the five medals for her carry-on.
By the close of Sochi 2014, she might have more medals both from Sochi and Turin. This is inspiring, if not so inspiring as when somebody finishes fourth, waits eight years and suddenly one day, perhaps while in the kitchen chopping carrots, officially gets a bronze. Concerning the 2006 women's 10-km classical, that would be what could happen to fourth-place finisher Kristin Stormer Steira, also a Norwegian, and it would bring a Norwegian sweep of the event.
That would mean Norway is a kingpin country not only at winning medals but at winning retroactive medals. Given that added prowess, you wonder if they still could cull more from all the way back to the first Winter Olympics at Chamonix in 1924, when they outpaced Finland 17-10 for the big title.
Somebody asked Bjoergen about winning another gold - from Turin.
"You know that she is (disqualified)?" Bjoergen asked earnestly.
No, the probe is in progress.
"For me this is rumors, so I don't think about that," Bjoergen said next, "Also it's many years ago so I focus on what I can do here and now and let's see what happens." For this era, though, an athlete is able to focus on here and now and the past, which does dress up the tired cliché.
See, there's another positive development.
Further, the mind can venture into places it never went in naïve years. The ears have heard so many denials by now that we can rate the denials in their own Olympic category. The mind can imagine a game of denials.
Asked if cross country skiing had grown cleaner, Bjoergen said, "This is my fourth Olympics and I think everything has been better for every year and from Vancouver and now I think that the sport is cleaner than it was in my first Olympics so, yeah. I trust in the WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency), that they do their job and that everyone is clean who is standing on the start today, so . . ."
Asked about a recent Norwegian book that alleged doping at high levels of the world's most successful Winter Olympic country, Bjoergen said, "I can't think about everything. I have to think what I stand for and what I am doing and I focus on myself … Of course, when you are on a high level and one of the best, you know that it could be some questions, what you are doing, but I have to think about what I am doing and what I am standing for."
That's a fantastic denial in several ways. The "what I stand for" works well. The acceptance that the questions will come -- and that they should come -- shows a refreshing realism. Bjoergen's words came across as so matter-of-fact that you might go to the window and wager that her pulse did not even quicken. I could hear it all and think that a sport of astonishing endurance might be cleaner than before even if there's no further revelation that could shock me.
In truth, I just don't know, but I can reckon in 2014 that if by any chance that was all balderdash, then Norway might have some excellent denial coaching and, if so, then the whole world should try to get some excellent denial coaching.