As Norwegian skier Martin Johnsrud Sundby continues to consider whether to appeal his doping ban to the Swiss Supreme Court, both he and the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) are speaking publicly about the case.
Sundby was banned for two months for using the asthma medication salbutamol through a nebulizer. Although the drug is legal at low doses or with an approved Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUE), Sundby had not applied for such an exemption and had used it at a high concentration through the device.
The International Ski Federation (FIS) had initially acquitted Sundby, but WADA appealed the case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) and won. The ski champion lost his 2015 Tour de Ski title as well as the 2015 overall World Cup title, although his two-month ban was shorter than most punishments in doping cases.
In Norway’s Aftenposten newspaper, Sundby said that he now regretted keeping the case a secret until WADA won its appeal rather than speaking out about it earlier.
FIS rules do not require acquittals to be made public, but Aftenposten revealed that the Norwegian Ski Federation had even gone as far as having its communications manager, Espen Graff, draft a press release after FIS cleared Sundby. The federation strategized that it would be better to get ahead of the case in the media sphere.
But Sundby stopped the plan from going forward, instead waiting to see the result of WADA’s appeal. He now says he believes that if he had gone public after the acquittal, it would have discouraged WADA from appealing at all.
In the same piece, Sundby said that his failure at 2015 World Championships in Falun, Sweden, was due to the case. He had learned of his positive tests in January and the stress caused him to get sick and miss most of the Championships, then turn in what was by his standards an unimpressive performance in the 50 k.
At issue in the case is whether asthma medication is performance-enhancing at high concentrations. The drug, salbutamol, is also banned because it is a masking agent.
Speaking about the case publicly for the first time, WADA Scientific Director Olivier Rabin told Norwegian newspaper VG that the drug did indeed have benefits for athletes.
“The latest research shows that large doses can have an effect,” he said.
Previous research had indicated that at recommended therapeutic doses, salbutamol did not affect healthy airways. That is, the drug could not relax muscle that was not constricted, for instance by asthma or exercise-induced bronchoconstriction.
However, the drug does not work only in lung tissue, and that appears to be part of the argument against high doses.
Jørgen Jensen, a professor at the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences, suggested to VG that the drug may affect skeletal muscle, increase muscle growth and speed recovery. He cited research showing that the class of drugs, beta-2 agonists, appears to be more beneficial to sprinting and power events than to endurance performance.
Sundby finished his two-month ban and recently rejoined the Norwegian national team in Livigno, Italy, for a training camp which included joint sessions with the Canadians.
But the case continues to reverberate in the ski world. Russian World Cup skier Evgeniy Belov accused the Norwegians of corruption since there was a long gap between Sundby’s positive test in January 2015 and the resolution of his case at CAS, which allowed him to complete the whole next season with no competitors the wiser as to his case.
His two-month suspension during the summer also didn’t affect a competition season.
“I think it’s obvious [why this happened],” Belov said, according to Inside The Games.
Meanwhile, Swedish star Charlotte Kalla said that she welcomed more research into the effects of the drug, but that athletes who had asthma should be able to take what medication they needed in order to compete at a normal level.
Other Doping Notes
The International Biathlon Union (IBU) has cleared three athletes who had tested positive for the heart medication meldonium in early 2016. Eduard Latypov of Russia, Artem Tyshchenko of Ukraine and Eva Tofalvi of Romania will not serve suspensions because, as the Anti-Doping Hearing Panel concluded, “they bear no fault” in having the drug in their bodies.
The panel did not find evidence that they took the drug after the Jan. 1 date when it was added to the Prohibited List, and decided that they could not have known that it would stay in their bodies for a longer period of time. All three athletes will have relevant results canceled, but are free to return to competition.
Meanwhile, Russian hackers continue to leak files stolen from WADA’s databases, primarily showing Therapeutic Use Exemptions for athletes who competed in the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Some data also show positive drug tests in Rio for the same substances.
Several of the cases involved salbutamol and other asthma medications; one TUE was for a drug to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. Perhaps the majority involved anti-inflammatory medications which are commonly used to treat injuries, but are banned without a TUE.
Data on 29 athletes from a variety of countries has been released so far, but the records of all 10,000 athletes who competed in Rio may be compromised.
“Given this intelligence and advice, WADA has no doubt that these ongoing attacks are being carried out in retaliation against the Agency, and the global anti-doping system, because of our independent Pound and McLaren investigations that exposed state-sponsored doping in Russia,” WADA Director General Olivier Niggli said in a press release. “We condemn this criminal activity and have asked the Russian Government to do everything in their power to make it stop. Continued cyber-attacks emanating from Russia seriously undermine the work that is being carried out to rebuild a compliant anti-doping program in Russia.”
Although law enforcement has asserted that the hacks originated in Russia, the country’s Minister of Sport, Vitaly Mutko, denied it.
“How can you prove that they are hackers from Russia? You blame Russia for everything,” he told The Telegraph.
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.