A Glance at Some Anti-Doping Numbers in Cross-Country Skiing

Jason AlbertMay 8, 2020

A year and more has elapsed since a doping scandal rocked the 2019 cross-country World Championships in Austria. Over that time, we have learned a bit more about what transpired at the micro-level. In the broader picture, those covering doping in sport often scour The World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA) annual release of a voluminous document titled “Anti-Doping Testing Figures”. The data dump runs hundreds of pages. Looking for figures on the number of tests per sporting discipline, type of test, governing body administering the test, on and on, it’s in there. The WADA report also discloses the number of AAFs (adverse analytical findings which indicate the presence of a banned substance) and ATFs (atypical findings that warrant more testing and follow up.) Useful information if one is trying to glean how pervasive doping might be in a chosen sport and how effective the tests are. 

If you’ve ever read those reports and you’re convinced athletes dope in nordic sport, then this much is true: very few athletes produce AAFs or ATFs.

Link to WADA Anti-Doping Testing Figures

2019-2020 FIS Anit-Doping Numbers

The International Ski Federation (FIS) released its own annual Anti-Doping Testing Figures on April 15, which it called “detailed FIS testing statistics”. To call this detailed is over reach.

The information does, however, provide the total number of FIS administered tests and disaggregates the numbers into “out-of-competition” and “in-competition” subcatagories for the 2019-2020 season. FIS catalogs the number of urine tests, ESAs (urine and blood tests which test for erythropoiesis-stimulating agents – think red blood cell boosters), blood tests, and specific tests for athlete blood passports (APB). 

FIS reports a total of 606 in-competition tests this season with 332 of those specific to cross-country skiing (or roughly 55 percent of the total). In-competition tests for cross-country skiing broke down as follows: 170 urine tests, 112 ESAs, one blood test, and 49 blood passport tests. 

For out-of-competition tests, FIS conducted a total of 2205 tests, with 1278 specific to cross-country (or roughly 58 percent of the total). For cross-country, FIS administered 302 urine tests, 245 ESAs, 151 blood tests, and 580 blood passport tests. 

FIS accounts for a portion of the overall testing in cross-country skiing. National Anti-Doping Agencies, like USADA, are also responsible for testing athletes both in and out-of-competition.

Without running through all the numbers, cross-country accounted for the majority of tests within the FIS family of sporting disciplines: cross-country, nordic combined, ski jumping, alpine skiing, freestyle skiing, and snowboard. Although the data released from FIS tells a story, it really is an intro or first chapter at best. There’s no indication of the number of AAFs or ATFs.

Although it appears that FIS is doing its job, if that means administering tests, then we have no idea if these tests catch dopers. Although the evidence may be lurking out there, it is our understanding that the skiers caught in Seefeld at the 2019 World Championships who had been practicing autologous blood doping – transfusing one’s own blood – never flagged an AAF. And according to FIS reports, some of those same athletes arrested in Seefeld were concurrently using hGh.  

We are glad for the testing. We just simply want to know if the testing is effective and does its intended job of deterring would-be-dopers. With the figures released in April by FIS, we simply do not know and neither do athletes who race clean. 

2018 WADA Anti-Doping Testing Figures

The 2018 Anti-Doping Testing Figures from WADA, the more thorough analysis of testing metrics, reveals the breadth of testing and the paucity of positives — which may be a good sign. Then again, it might not. (2018 is the latest data set publicly available from WADA.)

In cross-country skiing, a total of 2916 in and out-of-competition urine and blood tests were administered. These tests found a total of seven AAFs. (From Table 2: Total Samples Analyzed in AIOW Sport/Disciplines (Urine and Blood)). 

In cross-country skiing, 187 total hGh isoform tests were conducted (blood) with a single out-of-competition AAF. (Table 30)

In cross-country skiing, 272 total hGh biomarker tests were conducted (blood) with no AAFs. (Table 31)

In 2018, FIS specifically collected 228 hGh biomarker samples – the vast majority of those were collected out of competition — with no AAFs. (Table 19) 

A total of 1448 Athlete Biological Passport samples were collected for cross-country in 2018. (Table 4). 


WADA’s Explanation of their hGh tests, quoted from WADA’s Q & A page


Since the total levels of hGH secreted into circulation vary naturally, are widely fluctuating over time and may be influenced by several factors not associated with doping, it is practically impossible to develop an anti-doping test based simply on the measurement of increased total hGH concentrations. However, doping with recombinant hGH (recGH) alters the naturally constant proportions between the different isoforms of hGH present in blood of an individual.  The hGH Isoform Differential Immunoassays were developed to detect these changes in the proportions of different hGH isoforms after recombinant recGH injection.”


hGH affects the expression of many different proteins which may serve as biological markers of hGH activity.  These include markers of hGH action in the liver such as IGF-I, as well as markers of hGH action on soft tissue collagen turnover, such as the N-terminal peptide of procollagen type III (P-III-NP). The measurement of these two hGH markers in serum may serve to uncover the manipulation of the hGH/IGF-I axis independently of the doping substance used, be it recGH or other agents used to increase circulating hGH [for example analogs of GH-releasing hormone (GHRH), hGH secretagogues such as GH-releasing peptides (GHRP) or even hGH gene doping]. The detection and quantification of such biomarkers of hGH activity constitute the rationale of the indirect method for detection of doping with hGH, referred to as the ‘markers approach’.”

If you want to dig deeper into the trove of WADA’s Q and As, here’s the link.


Jason Albert

Jason lives in Bend, Ore., and can often be seen chasing his two boys around town. He’s a self-proclaimed audio geek. That all started back in the early 1990s when he convinced a naive public radio editor he should report a story from Alaska’s, Ruth Gorge. Now, Jason’s common companion is his field-recording gear.

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