After winning a World Cup competition in Dusseldorf in December, Russian sprinter Alexei Petukhov was asked to describe the source of his strength in the post-race press conference.
For most other skiers, the answer would have been simple: training, talent, good technique. But for Petukhov, with four of his Russian countrymen banned from the sport over the past year for doping violations, it was a tough one, and he addressed the issue in his answer.
“The doping scandal that took place in the summer reflects on us in very bad way,” Petukhov said, after describing the arc of his career. “But our sprint team is clean, and will always fight fair.”
Throughout this winter, Petukhov’s country has become a focal point for criticism of what some allege are lax policies of the International Ski Federation (FIS). Since news broke in November that FIS did not conduct tests on the podium finishers at the winter’s first World Cup races in Beitostolen, Norway, skiers and coaches have leveled a host of accusations at the federation.
In addition to the absence of tests in Beitostolen, another area drawing concern has been the monitoring of athletes during the off-season—when skiers are spread out around the world, not all clustered in the resorts and villages where the World Cup races take place. North Americans have
suggested that the Russians—and perhaps others—are not subjected to the same rigorous testing as athletes from their own nations.
On SkiTrax.com, Cross Country Canada Team Leader Dave Wood was quoted as saying that “outside of North America, many people are doing nothing.” And Justin Wadsworth, a U.S. Ski Team assistant coach, told FasterSkier that the off-season is “really where the whole thing is taking place.”
But in an interview, FIS Anti-Doping Expert Rasmus Damsgaard rebutted the criticism about Beitostolen, and of the off-season testing in Russia. In-competition testing, like that in Beitostolen, is outdated, Damsgaard argued, and as for off-season testing, he said that FIS’s program is designed to target the athletes with suspicious histories or from countries with less oversight, like Russia. Under Damsgaard’s supervision, these high-risk athletes are tested up to ten times a year, at a total program cost that is greater than the total sponsorship revenue raised by cross country skiing for FIS.
Michael Ashenden, an Australian anti-doping researcher who works with the World Anti-Doping Agency, said that FIS’s testing program is among the strongest in the world, and that it deserves more credit.
“My sense is that their work is often overlooked, in spite of what they’re doing,” Ashenden said. “A lot of it can sometimes be behind the scenes.”
In-competition is out
In the past, endurance sports federations have conducted drug tests on athletes both during the race season and during the off-season. Both types of testing were important—during the off-season, drugs can allow athletes to train harder and recover faster, while in-season they can improve performance in a given race.
However, over the last ten years, FIS—as well as other endurance sports federations—has gradually instituted a testing program that establishes and maintains profiles of athletes’ blood. Monitoring these blood profiles over time allows officials to observe fluctuations in certain values that can show the presence of a banned substance, without necessarily having to detect the existence of any specific drug.
As its profiling program developed, FIS began taking fewer samples directly after races. While these kinds of tests are still administered, Damsgaard said, they are no longer necessary—since the doping techniques most useful at the time of a race will leave a presence in the blood for long enough that his profiling techniques can detect them without having to obtain a sample directly afterwards.
So while some of today’s athletes may be calling for boosting the number of “in-competition” tests (those that occur immediately after a race), Damsgaard said that these are actually obsolete.
“We proposed many years ago to FIS that we should stop all in-competition testing, and focus only on out-of-competition,” Damsgaard said. “Of course, such a view is pretty un-politically correct, but from an anti-doping view, it’s the most correct view.”
No mandates for NADOs
Today, a large proportion of FIS’s testing outside of races still occurs during the competition season as part of the blood profiling program. But the federation also collects a significant number of samples during the off-season—in order to keep tabs on skiers while they are training.
In addition to FIS, each country’s National Anti-Doping Organization (NADO) also can help test athletes during the off-season testing. But according to World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) Director General David Howman, NADOs only have to uphold certain minimum standards of testing, which only extends to collecting samples both in and outside of competitions—not to any level of quality or numbers.
“Under the current rules,” Howman said, each country “is not under any mandate to conduct any number of tests, [or] conduct them any manner or way.”
The Russian Anti-Doping Agency (Rusada) does conduct both in and out of competition testing: according to Igor Zagorskiy, its deputy director,
the agency collected 194 in- and 140 out-of-competition samples last year. It is also working with Norway’s anti-doping agency to develop best practices.
But Howman said that criticism of Rusada’s numbers or policies was misdirected, because ultimately—while the NADOs can help—the “key” responsibility for off-season testing “at the elite level” still lies with individual sport federations, like FIS.
This is because not every country can make the same level of financial commitment to its testing program, Howman said. Some countries do not even have their own NADO, and others have programs that are still in their early stages.
A targeted strategy
While FIS Secretary General Sarah Lewis acknowledged that the federation has a “shared responsibility” for off-season testing with each NADO, athletes and coaches have criticized it for not doing enough.
In late November, FIS published a fact sheet stating that it had conducted more than 350 off-season tests on its athletes—136 of which were urine tests. In an interview, Devon Kershaw, a skier on the Canadian team, said that this was not nearly enough.
136 urine tests, “doesn’t even test every skier on the World Cup once a year,” he said.
But according to both Damsgaard and Lewis, rather than spreading these tests across the entire World Cup field, FIS’s off-season program specifically targets skiers at the highest risk of doping.
Athletes with a long history of clean samples and consistent whereabouts information are all but removed from the off-season pool, Damsgaard said, as well as those whose NADOs have proven to be trustworthy. This brings the number of athletes under FIS’s supervision down to 40 or 50, allowing its 350-plus tests to go much farther.
Some skiers “have at least one test a month since May,” Damsgaard said; “there’s others where we have four or five tests, and others three or four tests.”
As for the Russians in particular, Lewis said, “we have to oversee and supervise the testing…more than in many other nations, because of the record—it speaks for itself.”
Damsgaard said that he is not interested in boosting testing numbers at this point—either in- or out-of-competition.
“Testing more doesn’t gain any more information for us,” he said. “We have the EPO profiles that we need; we have the blood profiles that we need…any fluctuations make us very suspicious.”
Slow legal framework
The biggest problem for today’s anti-doping officials, Damsgaard said, is that the legal framework for convicting suspected cheaters has fallen behind the detection technology.
While Damsgaard can observe minute fluctuations in athletes’ samples, he does not always have the power to act on them.
As an example, he cited the case of three Russian athletes who tested positive for EPO—a blood-boosting drug—last January.
At the time, under WADA’s rules, Damsgaard said that FIS could only open cases on positive tests for two different types of EPO—even though 198
others were available on the black market.
So while Damsgaard could plainly see the drug in the Russians’ tests, there was nothing he could do about it until new testing standards—which he help write—were approved by WADA in May.
That case, Damsgaard said, was a good example of the frustration experienced by anti-doping administrators in sports federations.
“You know you can see a lot of positive athletes around…but the legal system doesn’t work as fast as the medical,” he said.
Updating the rules
According to Ashenden, the Australian anti-doing expert, athletes should be pressing for changes to the FIS’s legal system rather than its testing program, since the latter is already well-administered and targeted.
“Don’t focus on telling the federation to do more tests, because that’s just not going to cut it,” he said. “You need to change the paradigm of how we go about stopping athletes we suspect of doping from competing.”
As an example, Ashenden cited provisions that would keep athletes with dubious blood profiles from starting a race. Such measures would allow anti-doping administrators to hold suspected cheaters out of competitions without having to supply the heavy burden of proof required to ban a skier for two years.
These kinds of provisions, he said, are currently approved by WADA, but it is up to the individual sport federations to introduce them.
“[FIS] should and would respond if the athletes and the coaches came to them and said, ‘this is what we want you to do,’” Ashenden said.
The no-start provisions put forth by Ashenden are similar to the regulations that FIS already has in place for hemoglobin (a molecule found in red blood cells that is responsible for carrying oxygen), as well as two other blood-based criteria. Currently, skiers whose hemoglobin levels are over a certain level are barred from competition for five days, whereas exceeding the other standards results in a two-week ban.
The point at which additional blood profile-based start restrictions would kick in, Ashenden said, would be up to the skiers, “based on how much they’re going to tolerate a suspicion of doping in their fellow athletes.”
More stringent guidelines would be more likely to catch cheaters, but would also result in a higher risk of false positives.
A move for transparency
In the wake of all the media attention given to FIS’s anti-doping program, athletes are now pushing for more transparency.
American Kikkan Randall—who has also lobbied for more in-competition testing as a representative to FIS’s Athlete Commission—said that skiers would like to see the federation making more information available.
“As far as I know, the athletes haven’t received any updates on the FIS anti-doping efforts,” Randall wrote in an e-mail to FasterSkier. “I think most of the athletes would appreciate more communication about their efforts.”
Lewis, the FIS director, said that the reason the federation cannot publicize its anti-doping efforts is because of the risk of compromising the program.
“We can’t divulge where and when testing is taking place, how it’s taking place, who’s conducting it,” Lewis said. While athletes are welcome to consult with FIS, she said that making wider statements about the federation’s activities would have “counterproductive consequences.”
But Damsgaard said that he’d like to be more proactive about releasing information to athletes and others on the World Cup circuit. In the next few years, he said, he plans to propose a series of meetings on the circuit about his work and FIS’s anti-doping program.
“They don’t know the nature of how far the anti-doping research and implementation of profiles has actually reached,” he said. “I agree with the athletes that they should be informed about this.”
Nathaniel Herz is a reporter for FasterSkier, who also covers city government for the Anchorage Daily News in Alaska. You can follow him on twitter @nat_herz.