Do cheaters deserve a second chance? Gerhard Urain thinks so.
And since Urain is the nordic race director for Fischer Skis, that means that his company is willing to sponsor athletes who have returned from serving two-year doping suspensions, like Russian Olympic medalist Irina Khazova.
“I always try to compare it with normal life,” Urain said. “If you sent somebody to prison…and the punishment is finished, then everyone is having a resocialization program.”
In an interview from Europe, Urain made it clear that whenever any of Fischer’s athletes are caught doping, their contracts are immediately cancelled. And he said that his company does not actively pursue sponsorship deals with formerly suspended athletes. But if they are approached, “there is a chance that we will give them equipment,” Urain said.
“There’s a second chance for everybody,” he said.
In the small industry of cross-country ski producers, Fischer’s stance is not unique. While neither Atomic or Madshus will sign formerly suspended skiers, Rossignol inked Finland’s Virpi Kuitunen to a deal in 2004—two years after she was caught using a blood-boosting drug at the World Championships in Lahti, Finland.
Both Urain and Yann Vallet, Rossignol’s nordic manager, said that they thought that a change in their policies would have little impact on athletes’ behavior. The incentive to use drugs, they say, is connected to the prestige and money that accrues with success on the trails—and the risk of losing access to equipment, or to a relatively small contract with a ski sponsor, would have minimal influence.
“The major reason why somebody’s cheating—it’s always linked to success and money,” Urain said. “It’s not that somebody would be afraid to not get equipment…You can also go to a shop and get equipment to quite high standards.”
Madshus and Atomic, however, have opted for more stringent policies. According to Madshus Global Marketing Manager Per Wiik, his company goes to great lengths to ensure that athletes returning from suspensions are not supported.
Madshus has contracts to provide equipment to entire national teams, like in Russia or Norway, but if there’s an athlete on one of those squads who has ever been caught doping, the company will force them to pay for their skis.
“We don’t give the material for free,” Wiik said.
All four companies—Rossignol, Fischer, Atomic, and Madshus—have firm stances on the consequences when skiers are busted. Existing contracts are cancelled, and some of the manufacturers will demand that their equipment be returned.
Madshus and Atomic have also introduced schedules that delay their payments for wins or retainer fees, in case a drug test from later in the season shows up positive. That way, the companies don’t have to go through the painful process of trying to recover money that they’ve paid out. (Fischer also makes its payments late in the season, but for reasons unrelated to doping. Rossignol did not respond to a question on its payment schedules.)
Carl Swenson, an former American cross-country skier who serves on the board of the U.S. Anti-doping Agency, said that the most important thing a ski company can do is to make sure that it doesn’t sign anyone suspect to begin with.
As for athletes that are coming off of a doping suspension, he said that companies should approach them on a case-by-case basis—in some cases, Swenson said, they can be the most effective spokespeople against the use of drugs.
“There’s people who have come out of being caught doping…and have been great anti-doping advocates,” he said. “I would love to embrace or encourage anyone who’s open and outspoken about the problems and how to deal with them.”
While the ski companies may have a modicum of influence over the behavior of athletes, Swenson said that the real power lies with consumers.
“I don’t think you would be realistic to think that a company’s going to answer to anything else,” he said. “If people went out and said ‘I’m not going to buy skis because they signed so-and-so,’ that would be pretty powerful.”
Nat Herz is an Alaska-based journalist who moonlights for FasterSkier as an occasional reporter and podcast host. He was FasterSkier's full-time reporter in 2010 and 2011.