MARTTI VAINIO : He Went From Being the Apple of Finland’s Eye to Being the Rotten Runner in the Country’s Barrel

Times Staff Writer

When Finland’s Martti Vainio told the Medical Commission of the International Olympic Committee he was was shocked that testing at the Los Angeles Olympics had revealed anabolic steroids in his urine, he really meant it.

What the 10,000-meter silver medalist didn’t tell the commission was that he expected the tests to uncover an abnormally high level of the male hormone testosterone, which Vainio’s training partner had injected into him less than a month before the Games. How the synthetic steroids got in his system, testified a bewildered Vainio, he truly didn’t know.

Because he believed the test to be in error, Vainio insisted he be allowed to run in the 5,000-meter final, for which he had qualified. Vainio spent a sleepless night and reported to the warmup track at USC. Ten minutes before the final, he was informed he would not be allowed to run.

When the race went off without Vainio, thousands of Finns who had happily risen at 3:30 a.m. to watch the race broadcast live were at first puzzled, then stunned. They could scarcely believe it when the Finnish television announcer said, in a halting voice, that the nation’s foremost track hero had failed his drug test.


Even after two press conferences and much official explaining from the Finnish, the case of Martti Vainio and the mistaken drug is still a mystery. Only the enigmatic Vainio knows the full story. He broke his silence in a story published in the July 9 editions of the Daily Mail, in London. Vainio could not be reached for this story.

Officially, Vainio’s urine sample showed traces of Primabolin, an anabolic steroid. Vainio was one of two medal winners who were told by the IOC to return their medals (Swedish wrestler Thomas Johansson was stripped of his silver medal).

“You cannot understand what a terrible shock it was to the Finish people,” said Matti Hannus, a Finish sports journalist, speaking from his home in Oulu, Finland. “Vainio was the most popular athlete in Finland before the Games. It was the same for us as if Frank Shorter or Bill Rodgers had been caught. I was there (Los Angeles) and I felt like I was paralyzed. You cannot know.”

At the Games, Vainio steadfastly maintained his innocence. He said that when he arrived in the United States he felt sluggish and tired, so he obtained the vitamin B-12 from a physician in Ventura. (B-12 is said to improve the blood’s oxygen-carrying capacity.) Later, during interviews in Finland, Vainio appeared to be protecting “a friend” whom he said had administered the B-12.


Vainio’s coverup remained intact after the Games, as he went into internal exile to a camping site he operates. It wasn’t until a book, “Martti Vainio, A Run of Agony,” was published last fall that some of the details were filled in. In the book, Vainio admitted he had used steroids to “avoid over-stress” at the Games. He did not name the person who assisted him in administering the shots or monitoring the dosage.

“Vainio said he got the drugs in Palermo, Italy,” Hannus said. “What he thought he was taking was testosterone. He now thinks there could have been other drugs (steroids) mixed in. That would explain his surprise about the Primabolin at the Games. He has said he knew he was doing something illegal. But still, only he (Vainio) knows who was involved. There have been many contradictions.”

The day the book was published Antti Lanamaki, chief coach of the Finnish Athletic Assn., resigned after revealing his part in the coverup of a previous doping test Vainio had failed. Lanamaki said in a press conference that he destroyed evidence of Vainio’s positive doping test from the Rotterdam Marathon for “human reasons.”

“I came to the conclusion that I could not destroy his life only because his urine had contained about one milligram of a substance forbidden only by the rules of some ideological organization,” Lanamaki said.


The International Amateur Athletic Federation, the world’s governing body for track and field, banned Vainio for life. However, as per usual procedure, Vainio’s appeal reduced the ban to an 18-month suspension. In addition, in January the Finnish Athletics Assn. announced it would not accept any of Vainio’s performances since April 14, 1984, and stripped him of his national 5,000 and 10,000 titles and a cross-county championship.

In the Daily Mail interview, headlined “The Shame of a Drugs Cheat,” Vainio said he first took drugs because of the “persuasiveness of ‘people close to the Finnish national federation.’ ”

“I was never the only one taking drugs,” Vainio said. “I think there are others. I am just the only one who was found guilty. That’s the unfair part.

“It is right that I am punished, but many other athletes should be in the same boat. I only hope they have all given it up now because of what’s happened to me.”


Vainio’s admission that he took an illegal substance put to rest some of the more bizarre explanations for his positive test result. In part because he is a Finn, blood doping was suggested. (Four-time gold medalist Lasse Viren of Finland has long been rumored to be an adherent of this procedure. Another Finn, Kaarlo Maaninka, admitted to blood doping in Moscow, where he won silver and bronze medals. Blood doping has recently been banned by the IOC.)

The scenario some advanced for Vainio was that he used steroids to increase blood volume, then withdrew blood with the steroids in his bloodstream. Then, the plasma is separated from the red blood cells and the red blood cells reinjected into the athlete.

In this theoretical procedure, the steroids are filtered out with the plasma. Thus, it is believed the athlete receives both the muscle-building qualities of the steroids and the oxygen-carrying boost from the blood doping.

In Vainio’s case, the theory went, imprecise laboratory work failed to clear all the steroids from his blood and the drugs were detected.


Speculation such as this is made all the more wild because of Vainio’s sprouts-and-chelated liver pills reputation. A vegetarian who swallowed and injected as many as 17 vitamin and mineral supplements each day (27 different supplements the year before the Olympics), Vainio has spoken out against drugs and always seemed above reproach.

“It shook the Finnish sport very much,” said Dr. Arne Ljungqvist of Sweden, a member of the IOC Medical Commission. “Every leader I know was surprised that Vainio would take the drug. It shows the problem. Any athlete, even like him, can take the drug if they feel.”

Certainly in Finland, a land of wall-to-wall track and field fans, Vainio was revered.

“In the beginning, all of Finland was behind him,” said another Finnish journalist. “There was still much pressure on him. He talked to no one. Through the winter, he has trained in cross-country skiing. I think he may have hurt his back, but it is thought it was due to stress.”


The shock of Vainio’s drug bust is still felt in Finland and the already strict Finnish Athletic Assn. has gotten even more tough with drugs.

“Even a year later, it’s hard to tell all the effects it has had,” Hannus said. “It had had repercussions all over the country. One effect has been there have been much fewer spectators for athletics than before, at least for the time being.

“The testing in Finland has become very strict. They are testing here, there and everywhere.