Austrian cross-country skier Harald Wurm is the target of a criminal investigation about doping, according to Austrian news sources.
Wurm, a 31-year-old who was the U23 World Champion in the sprint back in 2006, represented Austria in the 2006 and 2014 Olympics. He has four individual World Cup top-10’s to his name, most recently in the pre-Olympic World Cup in Sochi in 2013.
Wurm has not commented on the situation. As of Monday the Austrian Ski Federation (ÖSV) had been aware of the scandal, but not officially informed by authorities. It appears that the investigation is headed by police, not the national anti-doping agency (NADA).
“NADA has been informed about the case and is in close cooperation with the investigating authorities,” spokesman David Müller told the media, according to Der Standard, a prominent independent newspaper based in Vienna.
In Austria, distributing performance-enhancing drugs is an illegal activity subject to anti-fraud laws. That’s why the police seem to be leading the investigation in this case.
Prosecutors have not publicly commented on the case. The fact that an investigation is ongoing was leaked by an anonymous letter to the Tiroler Tageszeitung newspaper.
ÖSV Sport Director Hans Pum told Oberösterreichische Nachrichten that there had been searches of Wurm’s house, and that Wurm had taken a lawyer.
“It is in our interest that everything is cleared up,” he said. “If it turns out that is there been something, then it is the same as in the past, and we will crack down.”
For his part, Markus Gandler, the director for cross-country skiing of the ÖSV, told Oberösterreichische Nachrichten that he was “waiting for results”.
Oberösterreichische Nachrichten reported that a hemoglobin meter had been found, but wrote that this was not evidence of doping. If more materials are found, however, Wurm may be in trouble. The World Anti-Doping Agency code prohibits possession of blood transfusions or any other method to increase the oxygen carrying capacity of blood.
International Ski Federation (FIS) rules, meanwhile, clearly prohibit possession of any “prohibited method”, according to its 2015 anti-doping code.
Furthermore, FIS can implement no-start prohibitions if athletes’ blood tests show unusual profiles, according to repeated data collected as part of the Athlete Biological Passport program. Thus the implication of finding a hemoglobin meter is that an athlete may be checking to see whether their hemoglobin levels rise to a level that would suggest doping, or trying to make sure that doesn’t happen.
Nevertheless, no further reports have emerged showing that Wurm posesses other banned materials, nor has he apparently had a positive doping test. ÖSV officials have said that Wurm is insisting that he can easily clear the allegations.
Austrian skiing had been beginning to emerge from the shadow of a huge doping scandal at the 2006 Olympics. There – where Wurm competed – materials for blood transfusions were also found in a raid on athletes’ living quarters; Wurm’s teammates Johannes Eder, Martin Tauber, Juergen Pinter, and Roland Diethart were banned for life by the International Olympic Committee (IOC).
“If you consider that there were syringes and blood bags lying on the bedside tables in the apartment and blood-soaked handkerchiefs . . . that the haemoglobin metre had been used 59 times in 10 days and you have huge differences between the levels being measured, and that these differences arose just before and just after tests in competitions, you can draw your own conclusions. Multiple athletes were infusing blood from multiple sources.”
-Thomas Bach, then the chairman of the IOC Disciplinary Committee and now the IOC President, speaking to media at the time.
Devices for measuring hemoglobin levels were part of those materials. It’s worth noting that the Austrian skiers were tested at the 2006 Olympics, but never found positive for any prohibited substance. Instead, they had been using blood transfusions to increase how much oxygen their blood could carry. And they had been using the hemoglobin meters to make sure that their levels did not exceed those stipulated in FIS’s no-start rules.
Thus, the fact that Wurm possessed the same type of tool to measure hemoglobin brings up unpleasant memories for Austrian skiing.
Though nearly 10 years have passed since Torino, doping has not completely receded after the four skiers, plus two biathletes and 14 officials, received bans.
At the 2014 Olympics, again one of Wurm’s teammates was caught: Johannes Dürr, who admitted to using recombinant erythropoetin (EPO), a blood-doping drug, for months before the Games and said he had passed 14 blood tests.
Dürr said that he had obtained EPO himself. And in July, Austrian prosecutors dropped their case against Dürr, concluding that he had not distributed EPO to other athletes. While his ban from sport remains, he thus avoided criminal charges.
The latest scandal could have big consequences: after the Dürr case, the head of the ÖSV, Peter Schröcksnadel, threatened several times to eliminate the entire cross-country ski program, since it does not seem capable of keeping itself clean.
Gandler has also thought about retiring. If Wurm is found guilty of doping, even without help from coaches, team doctors, or others within the national team or federation, it would be tough for Gandler to maintain credibility as the head of the program.
Finally, Wurm was sponsored by Seefeld 2017, the Austrian venue hosting FIS World Championships in two years time. Austrian snow sports is certainly hoping that any association with a doping athlete will not tarnish their event.
At the moment the Austrian Ski Federation has not suspended Wurm, even provisionally, because evidence of doping has not yet been confirmed and they wish to allow him due process.
However, cross-country head coach Gerald Heigl said that Wurm has dropped preparations for the season with the national team, and will attempt to “clear up” the situation in the next few days.
Gandler, Heigl, and biathlon coach Alfred Eder (who has coached the national team before moving to Belarus for the 2014-2015 season, but has returned to Austria to coach his son, Olympic relay medalist Simon Eder) were all among the 14 officials banned by the Austrian Olympic committee after Torino. But they were reinstated in 2009.
Dürr, too, looks like he is hoping for redemption: Oberösterreichische Nachrichten reports that according to rumors, he is thinking about legally challenging his lifetime ban and/or competing without the support of the national federation.
Chelsea Little is FasterSkier's Editor-At-Large. A former racer at Ford Sayre, Dartmouth College and the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, she is a PhD candidate in aquatic ecology in the @Altermatt_lab at Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology in Zurich, Switzerland. You can follow her on twitter @ChelskiLittle.