Sochi Notebook: Sachenbacher-Stehle Positive Is Disappointing – But Is It Sinister?

Nathaniel HerzFebruary 22, 2014
German Ski Association spokesman Stefan Schwarzbach takes questions after Friday's women's relay race.
German Ski Association spokesman Stefan Schwarzbach takes questions following Friday’s women’s relay race, after news broke that day that German biathlete Evi Sachenbacher-Stehle had tested positive for a banned stimulant.

Editor’s Note: This is an editorial written from a firsthand perspective of covering Friday’s news of the Evi Sachenbacher-Stehle doping case. 

KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia – Early Friday afternoon I got a frantic email from a colleague asking if there was any way I could make an impromptu press conference at the German House at the Olympic mountain venue, where details of a positive drug test by a Norwegian athlete would be released.

I sprinted there, incredulous. Norwegians don’t test positive; their results in the endurance sports I cover, cross-country skiing and biathlon, are usually unassailable, as the country has little history or culture of cheating among its athletes.

I ran my stuff through a metal detector and went inside, where I was told that there was, in fact, no press conference. Someone had released information prematurely, and we would have to wait for more details.

Hours later, following an afternoon of frantic reporting and parsing the output of Google Translate, we finally learned that the athlete involved was a German: 33-year-old biathlete Evi Sachenbacher-Stehle. It was not a Norwegian, which explained why the rumored press conferenced had been scheduled for the German house.

I’ve covered nordic sports for five years. I’m 26 and not a veteran by any means, but I’ve already written about my fair share of doping scandals: three Russian cross-country skiers who were busted in the summer of 2009, plus an Estonian Olympic champion in the same sport who was caught using the blood-boosting drug erythropoietin before the 2011 World Championships.

Those cases had been frustrating for the American and Canadian athletes I cover. But they hadn’t been personal—the Russian and Estonian teams have never had close ties to the North Americans, given the barriers stemming from geography, and the lack of a shared language.

Sachenbacher-Stehle, 33, wasn’t a Norwegian, but nonetheless, her case was  different.

This was someone the North Americans were friendly with, had spoken to. She was a cross-country skier for 15 years before switching to biathlon last winter, so athletes from both circuits knew her.

She’s on the same German team as Andrea Henkel, who dates Tim Burke, the American biathlete. I’d interviewed her just Monday, waiting 10 minutes for a brief one-on-one once she finished taking questions in German after her fourth-place finish in the mass start biathlon race.

Her positive test came literally half an hour later.

“She’s always been pretty friendly and outgoing, and we’ve chatted at times,” said Kikkan Randall, the American cross-country skier. “She’s always seemed like such a nice and sincere person, so it’s definitely kind of shocking.”

The news Friday felt like it sucked up all the spare energy and attention of an Olympic Games that had seemed to be winding down uneventfully.

It was a big distraction for the Americans cross-country skiers and biathletes, who were preparing for races on Friday evening and over the weekend.

“I came back from lunch after training and walked into our chalet, and all the girls were sitting around the table and asked me if I’d heard,” Randall said, who called Sachenbacher-Stehle “the last person, really, that you would suspect.”

“It was definitely a real, definite sad thing to hear for all of us,” she said. “Even if she’s in biathlon, it still puts suspicion into cross-country, and that’s just not fair, because these games have been going on so positively.”

By the evening, a plausible explanation seemed to have emerged.

It turned out Sachenbacher-Stehle had tested positive for a stimulant, methylhexanamine, the benefits of which were not immediately clear. It’s not one of the bread-and-butter blood-boosting or muscle-building drugs like erythropoietin or steroids. The Germans said the evidence suggested she could have ingested a contaminated supplement.

I’m not so naïve that I’m willing to take their word for it. As noted by Beckie Scott, the Canadian former Olympic champion in cross-country skiing who now works with the International Olympic Committee and the World Anti-Doping Agency, Sachenbacher-Stehle “seemed nice enough. But we all know that nice guys dope too.”

In her hearing before the International Olympic Committee on Friday, Sachenbacher-Stehle’s defense was disappointing.

According to minutes from the hearing, she said that she had been taking supplements at the recommendation of her nutritional adviser for more than a year. Some, she said, had been tested at a lab in Germany, and were found to be clean. But others, also taken at the recommendation of her adviser, had not been tested—instead, according to the minutes, she simply trusted the “advice and assurance” from her adviser that they were clean, as well.

Under questioning from an IOC official at the hearing, Sachenbacher-Stehle “indicated that the nutritional adviser was her personal adviser, who has no connection with the German Olympic Committee, is not a doctor, but a former athlete who also advises other athletes and businessmen, although she does not know who.”

Well then.

Endurance athletes are taught to be wary of supplements—in fact, the German skiers and biathletes are supplied with a list of approved products known to be clean, according to Stefan Schwarzbach, a spokesman for the German Ski Association.

Sachenbacher is 33; in Sochi, she was competing in her fourth Olympic Games.

“Any athlete that’s even halfway educated these days should know better than to make these mistakes,” Scott said. “An athlete as experienced and long-term in the sports arena as she has been—it does beg the question, ‘What happened to the education and awareness component?’

To their credit, the Germans, through Schwarzbach, didn’t try to dodge responsibility, even as they maintained that Sachenbacher-Stehle’s actions were not aimed at cheating intentionally.

“It really seems that it is a mistake,” Schwarzbach said. “And she has to handle the consequences.”

But in some ways, in this case, those consequences seem a little out of proportion to the offense. Sachenbacher-Stehle now faces a year-long ban from her sport, at least, and has to face the voracious appetite of the international press, which is more than likely to lump her in with the three biathletes from Russia and Lithuania who tested positive before the games—at least one of whom was using erythropoietin, a more sinister drug.

And even if it turns out that Sachenbacher-Stehle’s ingestion of the drug was accidental, the damage has already been done to biathlon and cross-country skiing—to sports which, despite the recent positives, many athletes and officials feel are predominantly clean.

“The story will be headlines all over the international media. And it just puts biathlon in a negative light—especially for what I think this is, which is just all a big mistake. I think that’s really sad,” said Burke, the American biathlete. “My personal feeling is that this is the cleanest biathlon field that’s ever competed in an Olympics. I do not go to the start line thinking I’m at a disadvantage.”

Max Cobb, the president of the U.S. Biathlon Association, put it another way.

“I think accidental doping happens from time to time. It’s a real shame for athletes involved. But there’s a big difference between this kind of accusation, versus blood doping. There’s no way you can blood dope by accident. There’s a big difference between having someone stick a needle in your arm, and eating the wrong sports bar,” he said. “On the other hand, you have millions of people around the world watching the Olympics right now. For many of them, they won’t bother to differentiate between a real case of blood doping, and a case of accidental doping.”

If there’s any solace for the Americans involved in biathlon, it’s that at least someone they know, and involved in a German program that they trust, doesn’t appear to have intentionally abused that trust.

“I just couldn’t imagine it was something that the German team was doing, some kind of systematic doping program,” Cobb said late Friday. “It didn’t fit with anything we know of those coaches, and know of their program. I was happy to hear that it was accidental. That makes a lot more sense. It’s more consistent with what I know about these people.”

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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