A team of international journalists from Sweden, Switzerland, Britain, and Germany – led by Hajo Seppelt at Germany’s ARD broadcaster – has reported that hundreds of international skiers have had abnormal blood profiles at some point during their careers.
In autumn of 2017, a whistleblower shared a database of 10,000 blood test values collected by FIS between 2001 and 2010 with Seppelt, the German documentarian who has brought to mainstream attention serious doping scandals in Russia as well as across international track and field.
The team anonymized the records with respect to athlete names and nationalities before presenting them to two scientists for analysis, including Salt Lake City-based Dr. Jim Stray-Gunderson. The scientists identified athletes for whom the values would be statistically nearly impossible without having used performance-enhancing drugs.
“In my analysis of the data presented to me, there is a significant number of medalists that had abnormal or highly abnormal blood profile results, that suggests that there’s a significant incidence of doping in cross-country skiing,” Stray-Gunderson said in the television segment. “One of the things that was apparent in the profiles was that there was a lot of change going on around the time of major championships.”
The most egregiously abnormal blood profiles are those with very high values which then change quickly to more normal values. Such extremes and fast changes are nearly impossible to attribute to natural changes in physiology – and the high, abnormal values were usually during Championships events.
However, these blood profiles can’t be considered as hard proof of doping.
The athletes identified in the analysis won 313 medals at World Championships and Olympic Games between 2001 and 2017, about 46% of all medals.
“Cross-country skiers who did not finish in medal positions registered drastically fewer abnormal blood values,” the reporters wrote in the English version of their ARD text report.
One fifth of the athletes identified as suspicious in the analysis have been picked up for doping violations during their careers.
On the other hand, about 50 of the athletes who have had abnormally high blood values reported in the past are set to compete in PyeongChang, South Korea, when the 2018 Olympics kick off in just under a week.
According to the Sunday Times piece on the investigation (which is behind a paywall), the International Ski Federation stated that it was “more than satisfied” with its antidoping program.
The highest number of the suspicious athletes identified were Russian, but athletes from Norway, Sweden, Austria, and Germany are also among the athletes with abnormal blood profiles.
No other countries were mentioned, and it is also not clear what constitutes an “abnormal” blood profile, what specific parameters were considered, or whether only high values were considered or changes through time.
At the 2006 Olympics in Torino, Italy, a number of cross-country skiers were disallowed from racing for several days for having high hemoglobin values. The group included Kikkan Randall and Leif Zimmerman of the United States, Sean Crooks of Canada, Evi Sachenbacher-Stehle of Germany, Natalia Matveeva and Nikolai Pankratov of Russia, Sergey Dolidovich and Aleksandr Latzukin of Belarus, and Jean Marc Gaillard of France.
Matveeva later served a doping ban for using EPO and Pankratove for having blood doping equipment. But high hemoglobin values can occur naturally, and Germany’s Jens Filbrich received a dispensation from FIS to race despite constantly having hemoglobin values above their cutoff (a system which FIS no longer uses to police blood values).
The analysis by Stray-Gunderson appeared to use a more sophisticated method looking at change over time rather than simply numerical cutoff values.
ARD and Sunday Times reporters revealed a similar scandal based on a leaked blood profile database in track and field back in 2015.
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.