PRAGELATO PLAN, Italy—They held an Olympic cross-country skiing race in this sunny, quiet valley Tuesday morning, a competition that was only partly about winning and losing.
Sweden came away with two gold medals in the team sprints, winning both the men's and women's events in close, exciting finishes.
But perhaps the biggest smiles belonged to a pair of women who came nowhere near the podium.
Evi Sachenbacher Stehle of Germany and Kikkan Randall of the United States had been among a dozen skiers who, just before the start of the Games, had tested positive for elevated hemoglobin levels.
The blood readings suggested one of two possibilities: Either their bodies were reacting naturally to a change in altitude, or they had taken performance-enhancing drugs.
For five days, they waited to be retested and cleared.
"It's definitely been a rollercoaster," Randall said. "It was kind of emotionally draining and that's not the best thing, coming into these races."
Such is the prevailing atmosphere in cross-country, a sport that has been hit by doping scandals at previous Winter Olympics.
Erythropoietin, or EPO, has been a chief culprit, a drug that increases the number of red blood cells, thus giving athletes greater endurance.
This week's temporary suspensions, along with news that one of the skiers, Sergei Dolidovich of Belarus, had tested positive a second time, had people wondering once again.
"I've studied performance-enhancing drugs for a long time," said Bruce Svare, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University at Albany in New York. "To think there isn't a significant amount of doping going on would be terribly naive."
Yet Svare and other experts acknowledged that the hemoglobin test can be misleading. They said levels can rise at altitude, or if an athlete becomes dehydrated.
The International Ski Federation issues five-day suspensions to give the body time to adjust to what can be a dangerous condition.
Under stressful situations, thickened blood "can cause serious damage, even fatalities," said Steven Ungerleider, a researcher on doping in sport.
Health was only one of the reasons that Sachenbacher Stehle, a gold medalist at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games, gave for drinking gallons of water over the last five days.
"I was angry," she said. "I did not do something forbidden."
Randall was experiencing similar emotions. She had felt a little dehydrated and wasn't worried about eventually being cleared. The bad part was feeling as if she had been lumped in with athletes previously caught taking performance-enhancing drugs.
It was, she said, a long wait for the test that publicly cleared her and several other athletes, including U.S. skier Leif Zimmerman of the men's team.
For Sachenbacher Stehle, that second test was a few days too late. Her levels had gone back down but she had already missed what was considered her best shot at a gold medal in the 15km pursuit on Sunday.
"Nobody can give it back to me," she said, after she and Viola Bauer finished fifth in the team sprint.
Randall was happier with her outcome. She and veteran teammate Wendy Wagner had done well in an event in which American women had never before done very well.
A couple of laps into the qualifier, as they kept up with the lead pack, the public address announcer mentioned to the crowd, "It would be funny if the U.S. team could take a spot in the final."
"Someone told be about that," Wagner said. "Kikkan and I are good sprinters; all we had to do was ski well."
They became the first American women to reach the final in this relatively new event, a step forward, even though they finished 10th in the medal race.
Their achievement was made even more prominent by the plight of the American men. Andy Newell and Torin Koos figured to have a shot at the podium until Koos fell ill and had to withdraw before race time. Chris Cook replaced him and the reconfigured team struggled to a 13th-place finish.
"Definitely a disappointment," Newell said.
But on this day at Pragelato Plan, test results seemed almost as important as race results, and there was a hint of relief in Randall's words.
"I know I'm a clean athlete," she said. "I just had to be confident about that."
David Wharton is a sportswriter for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.