The Norwegian Ski Federation has announced that cross-country skier Therese Johaug, an Olympic and World Championships gold medalist and two-time winner of the overall World Cup title, has had a positive drug test.
According to the federation, Johaug had severely sunburned her lips while training at high altitude in Seiser Alm, Italy, in August.
The damage can still be seen in a photo she posted to Instagram over the weekend.
After the team moved to nearby Livigno for a mid-elevation camp, team doctor Fredrik Bendiksen noticed Johaug’s condition. He bought two creams at an Italian pharmacy and assured Johaug that neither contained substances on World Anti-Doping Agency’s Prohibited List.
The first cream she used did not help her sunburn. So she switched to the second. It helped – but it also contained clostebol, an androgenic anabolic steroid which is in fact banned.
Johaug was visited by doping control officers on September 16 – where she declared the lip cream, called Trofodermin, on a form listing what medications she was using – and was informed of her positive test on October 3. The test was ordered by Anti-Doping Norway, which will proceed with her case.
The news was made public by the ski federation on Thursday morning. Johaug had a live press conference on NRK, Norwegian state television, around noon (Norwegian time) on Thursday.
In the statement released Thursday morning by the federation, Johaug described her feelings.
“I am completely devastated and in despair to have ended up in this very demanding and to me unreal situation,” she said, according to a translation by the International Ski Federation.” I see this as unfair and totally undeserved, even though I am obviously aware of the liability that I have as an athlete for the medication that I use.”
In the press conference, she said that this had been “the worst week of my life.”
Clostebol is commonly used to treat skin conditions. But it is also performance-enhancing. Clostebol was initially developed in East Germany and used by athletes there to gain an athletic advantage. It is a derivative of testosterone, but is considered a weak anabolic agent compared to some other steroids.
A number of athletes across nationalities and sports – ranging from professional baseball and soccer to international Olympic sports like track and field, weightlifting, and beach volleyball – have tested positive for the clostebol.
The test for clostebol is fairly sensitive, and a number of athletes have tested positive despite never taking the drug as a medication. For instance, the drug is also used to promote growth in livestock (particularly in countries where the use of growth hormones is prohibited) and there are documented cases of test subjects who had never taken the drug having it show in urine samples after eating meat from animals raised on the substance.
Clostebol also has applications for gynecological care, and there are other documented cases where an individual has tested positive after having sexual intercourse with a partner who is using the drug in a medication.
But a number of cases have been the result of athletes simply using topical skin creams without checking to see whether any of the ingredients were prohibited. In this case, it is clear that Bendiksen made a mistake in obtaining the medication. A simple online search would have revealed that clostebol was an active component of Trofodermin.
Bendiksen has taken complete responsibility for the mistake.
“Therese is an amazing, conscientious person and performer who is careful and precise in everything that she does,” he said, according to a translation. “The most important thing for me to do now, is to do everything I can to make sure she is not punished for using a cream which I assured her was legal to use.”
At the same time, Johaug said that she took responsibility for following Bendiksen’s recommendation. She explained that she had asked whether the cream had any prohibited substances in it, was told that it did not, and trusted her team doctor.
She tried to strike a balance by saying that she was responsible for the decision not to check the drug’s contents against the WADA list herself, she also “has zero guilt.”
“To get an undeserved positive test, it’s an athlete’s worst nightmare,” Johaug said.” But I will fight everything I can and show that I am innocent in this matter.”
Norwegian team doctors believe that Johaug would not have had enough of the substance in her system to affect her performance anyway. The case is ongoing and a suspension has not been issued, but a case from 2005 before the International Swimming Federation (FINA) resulted in a reduced sentence for a 15-year-old swimmer who had used the medication in a skin cream and successfully argued that she did not gain any performance advantage from it.
The federation reportedly canceled a major season kickoff event scheduled for Thursday. Instead, the cross-country committee is meeting to decide how to handle the situation.
For Norway, the news comes after a long summer of doping controversy. Several-time men’s World Cup winner Martin Johnsrud Sundby was suspended for two months for using a too-high dose of the asthma medication salbutamol.
When that made news – 18 months after the positive tests had taken place, generating widespread outrage – several other Norwegian athletes came forward to say that they had been instructed to take the same doses of medication despite the fact that they did not even have asthma.
The ski federation is clearly trying a different crisis management strategy this time around. Rather than delaying, Johaug held the press conference soon after learning the news herself.
Whether that is due to the preferences of the federation or the athlete is unclear. The federation had reportedly urged Sundby to go public earlier in his appeals process, but he had refused.
Now, after months of denying responsibility for the high doses of asthma medication he had been prescribed by a team doctor, Sundby has apologized and said he was “100% responsible”.
The ski federation, meanwhile, is facing a nightmare. President Erik Røste said in the press statement that he was “concerned that Norwegian cross country have again ended up in such a demanding situation.”
And once again, it appears that the doping violation was the result of an athlete following advice of a team doctor. Røste said that the federation would look into how to prevent the problem from continuing.
The news also comes at a bad time for Norway as their Minister for Culture, Linda Hofstad Helleland, is bidding to become the vice president of the World Anti-Doping Agency.
For Johaug, Seiser Alm has become quite a significant place for her, and not in a positive way: in 2015, she broke her hand while running there.
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.