Sex and drugs rock Olympics!

Published on Jan 28, 2006 06:34 PM IST

Sex and drug scandals and a series of high-speed crashes have cast a shadow over preparations for the bobsleigh, luge and skeleton events at the Winter Olympics.

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None | ByAFP, Hong Kong

Sex and drug scandals and a series of high-speed crashes have cast a shadow over preparations for the bobsleigh, luge and skeleton events at the Winter Olympics, where records are tipped to tumble.

The US skeleton team, triumphant in both men's and women's disciplines when the head-first plunge made its Olympic return four years ago, are now making news for all the wrong reasons.

Women's coach Tim Nardiello has been barred from the Games after athletes, including Olympic champion Tristan Gale, accused him of sexual harassment.

Team member Felicia Canfield said Nardiello would often comment on how good she looked in her speedsuit, and had patted her behind and tried to kiss her.

The US Olympic Committee decided to veto the coach's trip after an investigation unearthed an unacceptable "pattern of behaviour".

However top men's slider Zach Lund will compete despite failing a drugs test.

Lund was stripped of a second-place finish in Calgary but escaped suspension after testing positive for finasteride, which is banned as a masking agent. He claims he was taking it for baldness.

Meanwhile, 2004-2005 world champion Noelle Pikus-Pace will miss the Games with a broken leg after being hit by a four-man bobsleigh in October.

"This has definitely been an interesting season," said team member Kevin Ellis. "I can't think of a more stressful one."

Pikus-Pace was not the only one caught out on the bobsleigh track, where competitors hurtle at speeds of up to 130 kph (81 mph).

German coach Raimund Bethge had to be airlifted from the Cesana Pariol Olympic course with serious head and leg injuries after being hit by an Australian bobsleigh in November.

A series of crashes on the 1,435m (1,569-yard) track, which competitors will navigate in about 100 seconds, had already forced the suspension of luge racing and safety modifications.

However, despite changes to the final stages of the demanding 19-bend track, organisers are confident that records will fall.

Last year's world two-man bobsleigh champions Pierre Lueder and Lascelles Brown, the Jamaican-born brakeman who received Canadian citizenship just days ago, are among the chief contenders.

Switzerland's European two-man champions piloted by Martin Annen, and Todd Hays' American sleds, are also expected to challenge the Germans who took both the two- and four-man events four years ago.

However it's a different story in the women's bobsleigh where German double world champion Sandra Kiriasis - the 'Flying Shark' - is strongly favoured to crown her glittering career with the Turin title.

Vonetta Flowers, the first black athlete to win Winter Olympics gold when she beat Kiriasis in 2002, returns for the United States.

Up to 7,000 tifosi will pack the piste grandstand for local luge legend Armin Zoggeler, the Italian policeman and Olympic champion who wrapped up his fifth world title this month.

Zoggeler will be challenged by German legend Georg Hackl, the 'Speeding Sausage' who has recovered from a serious bout of 'flu in time to challenge for his fourth Olympic crown.

The women's luge is shaping up as a battle between former Olympic champion Silke Kraushaar, who won her fourth European title this month, and Salt Lake City gold-medallist Sylke Otto.

Reigning Olympic champions Patric Leitner and Alexander Resch, also from Germany, are a good bet for the doubles race after sealing the European title in Winterberg.

The troubled skeleton events look like being a North American affair with Canada's Jeff Pain and the embattled Lund among the favourites. Canadian Mellisa Hollingsworth-Richards leads Swiss rival Maya Pedersen in the women's World Cup standings.

Away from the unsavoury scandals, the popular sledging events have also thrown up their share of feel-good stories.

Astrid Loch-Wilkinson and Kylie Reed will become Australia's first ever Olympic bobsledders, while Michelle Steele is its first skeleton Olympian.

Jamaica's bobsleigh team, immortalised in the hit 1993 film 'Cool Runnings', will be hitting the Olympic piste for the sixth time after they grabbed world attention at the 1998 Calgary Games.

But Iraqi skeleton hope Faisal Faisal saw his Turin dream shattered when he finished 16th in a qualifying race this month.

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