Among Ski Companies, Subtle Differences on Doping

Nathaniel HerzJune 18, 20108
Irina Khazova racing at the Olympics. Photo: Bjarte Hetland

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.

Virpi Kuitunen with a pair of Atomic skis, before she switched to Rossignol

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.”

Nathaniel Herz

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.

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  • Mike Trecker

    June 18, 2010 at 7:07 am

    Considering that Urain was part of the notorious 2002 Austrian Olympic Team, his sympathy towards dopers that got caught is not surprising. He probably has been working hand in hand with cheaters his entire career.

  • davord

    June 18, 2010 at 12:03 pm

    Russian skiing is controlled by the government and the big oil companies, such as Lukoil, are some of the main sponsors. Since that government has been known to corrupt, it will do anything to make their skiers the best. They actually believe it is okay to dope. It’s very much like Italian or Spanish cycling. How many dopers have those two countries produced in the last 15-20 years? Too many. Unfortunately, hypocrites such as Pat McQuaid will deny there is any systematic doping within the sport and outside of it (private coaching). If one or both of those countries are sanctioned, because of the high number of doping cases in the las few years, it would be an outrage from their fans, athletes, sponsors, etc. Let’s say the main sponsors of such large teams as RadioShack, HTC Columbia, Liguigas, Caisse Depargne, etc were to drop their sponsorships, it would be a huge blow and huge loss of money would be catastrophic for the sport. That’s how modern, professional sports work, with money, betting, fixing, manipulations, lies, doping, cheating, etc. The men at the helm of the UCI, FIS, MLB, NBA, UEFA, etc, would not dish out such sanctions on such important teams, where money runs in and out every day. It wouldn’t make sense for them financially, it would lose a large number of fans, the media wouldn’t profit from it. How long has Kaper been at the helm of the FIS? Since 1998? He has been with the IOC since 2000, and with the WADA since 2003. Things either take way to slow, or we (the fans, athletes, coaches, etc) are being told things are or will be done, but never are. Cycling never learns from it, MLB never learns from it, match fixing in Tennis and Soccer certainly haven’t rattled the officials of those respective sports. You live and hope for things to change, but will they?

  • Rick Halling

    June 18, 2010 at 12:55 pm

    Thanks for putting together such an interesting article. One of the main reasons Atomic was so eager to support the US Nordic Combined Team was because we knew how clean they were. We have been criticized in some circles for being so intolerant in regards to doping and we have turned down a lot of athletes who seemed questionable to us. The end result is that we may not land the total medal count of some other companies, but it is so sweet when you win Gold with athletes you know are clean.
    Rick Halling, Atomic USA

  • davord

    June 18, 2010 at 2:25 pm

    Totally agree Rick. It’s quite refreshing to see. I would add another thing. Those three guys are so much better, skiing wise, than pretty much anyone there, save Lamy Chappuis, Moan and Manninen. I mean, it’s not even close. The other guys could dope all they want, but the US guys would still beat them. Technically they ski much better, and physically they seem much stronger than a lot of the Euros there. It’s no secret on why and how they are winning medals, it’s all right there on the trails, for everyone to see! Training, notwithstanding, of course.

  • Tim Kelley

    June 18, 2010 at 3:04 pm

    I would have to disagree with Mr. Swenson’s comment about a “powerful” incentive for ski companies to not sign former dopers being consumer boycotts of ski purchases. In America at least, when have corporate morals been a factor with consumers of sporting goods? Companies like Nike, North Face, Salomon and countless other outdoor and sports products companies have used Asian sweatshop labor for decades, and most all consumers have known of this. But these corporations continue to grow and prosper. China has a long record of human rights travesties, but that doesn’t stop zillions of box stores in the world, like WalMart, to sell primarily Chinese products. Most consumers of sporting goods don’t care about corporate morality much in comparison to cost.

    Also, to take Fischer for example – I suspect that Nordic skis are a small part of their overall sales. So, does Mr. Swenson think that a family purchasing Alpine skis for their kids would bypass a deal on Fischer skis because some xc skier they never heard of, in a sport they have no clue about, doped? I don’t think so.

    On a personal level, if I were buying a pair of skis (which I actually do) – whether a doper used a certain brand of skis would have no part of my decision making. I buy skis that I think are good and that are selling for a reasonable price. And I would think this attitude holds true for 99% of people that buy their own skis.

    Good article Nat.

  • Cloxxki

    June 19, 2010 at 4:22 am

    I think it would not hurt, if it were harder for returning dopers to get their dirty hands on fast skis again. Halfway nice that Madshus had “their” athletes pay for what they used to get for free.
    Let’s face it, good skis and service are a big thing at the WC level. How would a medal contender do, if (s)he had to go to a store, and purchase each pair of skis at €400 each? One advantage though, they’d have time to learn their skis, but the investment would still be huge.
    Next for the wax sponsors and wax techs. Let wax techs be allowed to charge a realistic per hour fee for cheaters’ skis they are asked to prepare. Wax techs are in it out of heart for the sport, right? Wax your own skis, doper. Let your dope dealing coach get his hands dirty some useful way.

    Some how, doping is still THE way to earn huge respect in cycling, and that’s a baaad thing. Nordic should make sure for it to go the other way.
    Polish athletes in cycling and skiing seem to be herassed by helpful “vitamin” suppliers lately. Young lads getting unearned medals at -23 Cyclo-Cross worlds, and a young lady skiing better in Whistler than she normally does. Luckily, these got caught.
    It needs to end.

  • kjnordic

    June 19, 2010 at 1:05 pm

    Tim, I work for Salomon and want to clarify a point you made regarding sweat-shop labor. On one side, I think the big-wigs at Salomon would be flattered to be included with Nike and The North Face as a big sports brand, since these brands are both many, many times larger than Salomon. While I haven’t ever been to the Salomon footwear factory in China, several of my co-workers have been there and the employees at this factory are being paid a significantly above average wage, have good working conditions, are not over-worked, and are treated well. The impression I have been given from people that I trust who have visited these factories are that the factory workers are happy with their roles, are proud of what they do, and are treated very well.
    Salomon is still making nearly all of our nordic gear in Europe in factories that have been around for decades and are known to have high standards for their employees; including a ski factory in Austria which has extremely high environmental standards.

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