Two years ago, Austrian cross-country skier Christian Hoffmann removed himself from the international-racing scene by retiring. That didn’t keep him out of headlines.
On Monday, Austria’s anti-doping agency, NADA, handed the world champion a six-year ban from the sport. The decision was retroactive from 2009, in which Hoffman had been suspended two years for being associated with a Vienna blood bank, Humanplasma.
NADA most recently found the 36-year-old Hoffmann guilty of having his blood taken for doping purposes at the Vienna lab between 2003 and 2006, and tagged on a ban of four years for co-owning a centrifuge for blood enrichment.
Hoffmann’s lawyer, Hans-Moritz Pott, told reporters they would fiercely fight the verdict. He reiterated that Hoffmann never tested positive for a banned substance, and said they would appeal the case to an independent arbitration committee, and ultimately, the Supreme Court of the civil-court system.
“Not one violation of the rules has been proven,” Pott told the Austria Press Agency. “(Hoffmann) says has he has competed cleanly for 23 years and he can’t let them do this to him.”
After prosecutors insisted they wanted to keep Hoffmann from competing in the 2014 Olympics, Hoffmann told the Upper Austrian News they had been trying to take him down for years.
“They wanted to make sure that I never absolve (to) race,” Hoffmann said, according to a translation. He has not indicated he would like to make a comeback.
In 1999, Hoffmann was part of Austria’s world-championship winning relay. He took gold at the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics in the 30 k, after the initial winner, Johann Mühlegg of Spain, failed a doping test.
Ten Austrian cross-country skiers were tested at the Salt Lake Games for using illegal substances, but all tested negative. Hoffman’s former coach, Walter Mayer, received a 15-month jail term in August for his connection to doping activities.
Hoffmann and teammate Roland Diethart, who received a lifelong Olympic ban after Turin (2006), were supposed to appear at the Mayer’s hearing. They did not show up, along with biathlete Wolfgang Perner, who was also banned from the Olympics.
A former ski official, Johannes Obererlacher, claimed to have walked in on Mayer while he was giving Hoffmann a blood transfusion at the 2002 Games. The International Olympic Committee questioned Hoffmann and cleared him of the accusation, the AFP reported.
Most known for his Olympic medal, Hoffmann anchored the Austrian men’s relay that edged the Americans for fourth by six-tenths of a second. Carl Swenson raced him to the finish.
In February 2002, Swenson told ESPN he was excited to hang with Hoffmann and test him in the final stretch.
“I wish I had a little fresher legs. I think I could have pushed him all the way to the finish,” he said.
Now a member of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, Swenson is committed to cleaning up the sport. While the USADA board member couldn’t comment on behalf of the agency, he offered his reaction to Hoffmann’s ban in an email.
“It’s good news when a doper gets caught,” Swenson wrote. “It’s sad to think of the people that were cheated out of a better result.
“There will always be racers who try to cheat, personally I don’t give much thought to what they got away with,” he added. “I get some satisfaction knowing that every cheater walks away worried that he will be exposed one day.”
So far, Hoffmann spent some $14,000 euros — about $18,800 dollars — on legal fees. His attorney said the money didn’t matter.
“We benefit from everything, even if the costs are huge,” Pott said.
Finances may not be a concern for Hoffmann, who shared the cost of a $100,500 blood centrifuge. Athletes testified he lent the centrifuge to them, which is a criminal offense under Austrian anti-doping laws.
Based on his offenses, the NADA Law Commission gave Hoffmann the minimum sentence of four years. He could have received a life in jail.
In a press release, the Law Commission stated its decision considered World Anti-Doping Agency standards. Citing WADA code, the Austrian disciplinary commission decided not to cancel all of Hoffmann’s results.
Tracing the first “material time” in which Hoffmann’s performance was affected and voiding his results accordingly would be “an impermissible double possible punishment,” the NADA press release stated.
The head coach of Canada’s national cross-country ski team, Justin Wadsworth was also on the American’s fifth-place relay at the 2002 Games. He thought the Austrian’s ban was a bit comical, considering Hoffmann retired from the sport in 2009.
“We knew he was doping,” Wadsworth wrote in an email. “I mean we had no hard evidence as athletes, but we knew it that same way we knew Mühlegg and others were doping as well.”
Around that time, several cross-country skiers were convicted. In 2001, six Finish skiers were caught using a banned substance: Jari Isometsa, Harri Kirvesniemi, Janne Immonen, Myka Myllyla, Milla Jauho, and Virpi Kuitunen.
“It sucked then, and it still sucks now,” Wadsworth wrote. “It really takes the purity and beauty of sport and diminishes it to the greed and other things in life that plague our society today.
“I guess as a clean athlete you must ski for the love of the sport and let the chips fall where they may,” he wrote. “I take pleasure watching clean athletes win today, because I know there’s still doping going on, and when you can win clean there’s another reason to celebrate.”
A current U.S. Ski Team member, Kris Freeman competed on the men’s relay in his first Olympics in 2002.
“Everyone who watched Hoffmann ski knew he was doped to the gills,” Freeman wrote in an email. “(The ban) should have been handed down a decade ago.”
He pointed to the case of Estonia’s Andrus Veerpalu, who retired from the sport in January and received a three-year ban for doping in August. The International Ski Federation (FIS) decided to bar the 40-year-old from competing until Feb. 23, 2014, the last day of the Sochi Winter Olympics.
“(The FIS) waited until one of their stars was effectively retired before handing down a statement punishment,” Freeman wrote.
Until a cheating star is penalized in his or her prime, Freeman said he wouldn’t be satisfied.
Because the FIS wasn’t involved in Hoffmann’s case, Sarah Fussek, assistant to the secretary general, couldn’t comment on specifics. She wrote in an email there was no indication the FIS would be involved in an appeal.
While Hoffmann’s case wasn’t final, Fussek wrote it could not be compared to others, but she referenced a few instances in which an athlete never failed a drug test yet was convicted. In 2011, the FIS handed Nikolay Pankratov (RUS) a two-year ban for possessing drug-injecting equipment. Denis Vorobiev (BLR) received a similar ban in 2005 when human growth hormone was found in his waist bag.
Swenson wrote that “more sophisticated dopers” often caught with evidence besides a positive drug test.
“The more difficult it becomes to dope, the more people must be involved, and the more likely that someone will talk,” he wrote. “I don’t know the specifics of this case, but it sounds like expensive equipment, technicians and doctors must have been involved. That is hard to hide.”
Alex Kochon (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.