Supporters rally around stricken skier

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Norwegian skiers, Norway’s national skiing federation and even commercial sponsors were supporting multiple-medal-winner Martin Johnsrud Sundby on Thursday, after he was ruled as having illegally using an asthma medicine and stripped of major victories in the 2014-2015 skiing season. Other skiers and sports officials outside Norway weren’t so supportive, even suggesting that Norwegian skiers have received preferential treatment over the years.

Martin Johnsrud Sundby achieved a childhood dream when he won the men's 50-kilometer race at home in Oslo on Saturday. It was his latest in a long string of World Cup victories, but meant the most to him. PHOTO: Holmenkollen Ski Festival/Magnus Nylokken

Martin Johnsrud Sundby has won many ski races over the years, but is now in despair over a ruling from the Court of Arbitration for Sport, effectively convicting him of an anti-doping rule violation. He’s been stripped of two major victories in the 2014-2015 season and ineligible for competition for two months. PHOTO: Holmenkollen Ski Festival/Magnus Nylokken

Sundby himself was stricken and stunned by the ruling from the international Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS). It upheld an appeal by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), filed after the International Ski Federation’s FIS Doping Panel had cleared him of doping charges last fall.

CAS itself characterized its ruling against Sundby and FIS as “mild,” since the panel of judges found that there was “medical justification” for Sundby’s use of the asthma medicine and his “degree of fault was light.” It nonetheless effectively sentenced the Norwegian skiing star to a two-month period of ineligibility, starting on July 11, following “an anti-doping rule infraction for salbutamol, a medication used by the athlete to treat asthma.” Sundby’s performances in competition on December 13, 2014 in Davos and on January 8, 2015 in Toblach were annulled, meaning that Sundby was stripped of his victories in the overall World Cup for the 2014-2015 season and in the Tour de Ski in January 2015.

Dispute over how he used asthma medication
The case centered on Sundby’s use of his asthma medication in accordance with the advice of Norway’s national ski federation’s own doctor, Knut Gabrielsen. Neither Gabrielsen nor the federation (Norges Skiforbund) thought it was necessary to apply for a so-called TUE (Therapeutic Use Exemption) for Sundby to use the medication as he had, via inhalation beyond labelled dosage.  Gabrielsen was also stunned and apologetic, and said he was “very unhappy” that his own “understanding” of the rules had resulted in the infraction.

The federation was thus taking “the full and complete responsibility” for Sundby’s “infraction,” even agreeing to reimburse Sundby for the roughly NOK 1.1 million (USD 130,000) in winnings that he’ll lose along with this medals. Both the federation and Sundby maintain the CAS ruling is incorrect, but won’t appeal. “There was a failure in routines, and I must take the consequences of that,” Sundby said at a press conference on Thursday. He insisted that his WADA violation amounted to a procedural error, not that he had taken any illegal drugs to enhance his performance.

He said he felt like “the sky had fallen down” on him when the CAS verdict came through, not least after the FIS had upheld Gabrielsen’s intepretation of the rules. Support was pouring in for him on Friday. World Champion Marit Bjørgen declared her “support for Martin in this difficult time” and said she also had “100 percent confidence in the Ski Federation’s medical team and other support apparatus.” Petter Northug, who ended up winning last year’s Tour de Ski after Sundby was stripped of the title, stated that “isn’t the way I want to win the Tour, so this is by no means a victory for me.” Skier Emil Haegle Svendsen said he was “sad to see Martin punished for the doctor’s misunderstanding of the rules.”

Sponsor stands by ski federation, at least for now
Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) reported that Norwegian bank Sparebank 1 would continue to sponsor the ski team. The bank entered into a three-year sponsorship of the team just last year that’s worth NOK 15 million per year, with an option for two new years. It was told about the WADA violation just hours before it went public on Wednesday, but a spokesman said the bank still had “full confidence” in the ski federation and “couldn’t see any consequences” of the CAS ruling for the sponsorship agreement “at this point in time.”

Many in Norway agree with Sundby that his name is now likely to be associated with doping, even though they think that’s unfair. Norwegian media outlets also seemed sympathetic, with newspaper Dagsavisen, for example, claiming Sundby had received a “merciless punishment without having done anything wrong,” and put the blame squarely on the ski federation “disorder and confusion” within the ski federation.

Criticism from abroad
While the Russian skiing coach Markus Cramer also supported Sundby, and said his asthma medicine was necessary, other skiers and skiing commentators outside Norway were not so sympathetic. Justyna Kowalczyk, who has earlier questioned Bjørgen’s own use of asthma medicine, suggested on social media that Norwegian athletes are treated differently than those from other nations. She wondered why Sundby hadn’t been suspended while the case was pending.

Aino-Kaisa Saarinen commented that the CAS verdict was only made public after the case had been pending for more than a year. Saarinen claimed it would have been more fair “if the same rules applied to everyone.”

Swedish commentator Ludvig Holmberg called the case “embarrassing” and “unnecessary,” writing in newspaper Expressen that the medication use had been “clumsy” by both Sundby and the federation. “This is embarrassing and destructive,” he wrote.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund