Austrian skier Harald Wurm has finally received his sentence from Austrian anti-doping officials, after being under investigation since September and receiving a provisional suspension before the 2015-2016 race season began.
At the end of his hearing this week, Wurm was suspended from competition for four years. According to the Austrian newspaper Salzburger Nachrichten, Wurm confessed to doping.
“I have used banned substances for myself,” he said.
Wurm is a former Under-23 World Champion and competed in two Olympics. Now 31 years old, he also admitted that this would be the end of his career.
Other careers are also in the balance. With Wurm’s teammate and reported best friend Johannes Dürr testing positive for EPO at the 2014 Olympics, Austrian coaches struggled to maintain their credibility over doping issues. Gerald Heigl, the head coach of the cross-country ski team, temporarily stepped down when the Wurm investigation started, but was then reinstated.
Worm’s four-year suspension was for two violations: first for using cobalt, a substance which is banned when taken as an infusion or injection of over 50 ml over a six-hour period; second, for blood manipulation.
Cobalt boosts blood’s oxygen-carrying capacity by stimulating erythropoietin gene expression through a pathway called the hypoxia induction factor (HIF), according to the World Anti-Doping Agency, which is funding a project to further examine the method’s effects on performance. Cobalt was specifically added to the WADA Prohibited List as of January 2015, while other substances with similar effects, like xenon and Argon, were added in September 2014.
Cobalt can be injected or taken orally. A 2005 article in the British Journal of Sports Medicine noted that oral doses of 30 mg/kg of body weight could increase the production of red blood cells. Overuse of cobalt can lead to kidney and heart problems, as well as changes in thyroid function. It has a half-life of less than an hour in the body.
“It has been known that cobalt increases erythropoiesis in experimental animals,” Dr. Wolfgang Jelkmann of the University of Lübeck, Germany, and Dr. Carsten Lundby of the University of Zürich, Switzerland, wrote in a 2011 paper in Blood Journal. “Cobalt is a very potent inducer of Epo transcription. Indeed, the international Epo unit (IU) was originally defined as the dose eliciting the same erythropoiesis stimulating response in rats as 5 μmol of cobaltous chloride.”
The initial police investigation in September had found a hemoglobin meter, used to monitor blood parameters. The distribution of performance-enhancing substances is illegal in Austria. Wurm settled the criminal charges by paying a fine of 2,000 Euros, the Associated Press reported.
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.