Ski officials still face harsh criticism

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Even as the Nordic World Ski Championships opened in Lahti, Finland this week, and Norwegian skiers won both gold and bronze medals, the officials running their Oslo-based national skiing federation were facing more criticism. Now it’s been revealed that last year’s doping drama against one of Norway’s star skiers was kept secret even from the federation’s own marketing team while it negotiated millions of kroner worth of new sponsorships.

Maiken Caspersen Falla was thrilled to be the first the cross the finish line of the women’s sprint on Thursday. Others aren’t so thrilled with the leadership of Norway’s skiing federation. PHOTO: FIS World Ski Championships 2017

Norway’s skiing bureaucrats have been under massive criticism for months because of how they’ve handled two serious doping cases, against skiers Martin Johnsrud Sundby and Therese Johaug. They’ve also been blasted for how they’ve handled the use of asthma medicine and not least how they’ve handled the criticism itself. Sports commentators in Norway have claimed they nonetheless have exhibited Teflon-like qualities: Nothing seems to stick to them and they’ve mostly all held on to their jobs and their power.

This past week, one of the Norwegian national ski team’s top coaches also got in trouble for lashing out at both Norwegian and foreign media after he felt the skiing federation (Norges Skiforbund) had been cleared by a commission probing their practices. That brought a reprimand from his superiors, and the skiers themselves were not impressed.

Sponsors kept in the dark
Now newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) has reported on how the highest officials of them all, skiing federation president Erik Røste and secretary general Stein Opsal, kept Sundby’s doping charges secret not only from the media and the public but also from the federation’s own board and marketing team. Only a few members of the federation’s top management were informed about the doping case that stemmed from Sundby’s positive doping results (tied to his own use of asthma medicine) in January 2015. Sundby’s doping case remained a well-guarded secret until July 2016, when he was ultimately suspended but only for two months and in the off-season.

That means the top leadership allowed marketing officials to continue to unwittingly sell sponsorships over the entire 18 months, for as much as NOK 100 million, also without letting potential sponsors know about a potential doping scandal. A large chain of Norwegian banks, Sparebank1, was presented as the skiing federation’s new main sponsor in March 2015, having no idea that Sundby was under investigation. At the same time, DN reported, sponsor agreements worth around NOK 34 million were extended  and others were negotiated, especially since the large Norwegian company Aker had ended its engagement as a main sponsor. The skiing federation needed the money.

Torbjørn Skogstad (left) and Erik Røste are the two top leaders of Norway’s national skiing federation, Skiforbundet. They’re under more criticism for keeping last year’s doping case against Martin Johnsrud Sundby secret for 18 months. PHOTO: NRK screen grab

When the news hit like a bomb that Sundby was suspended, Sparebank1 made it clear to the skiing federation that it was not pleased. “We sent a signal to Skiforbundet that we don’t like surprises, that’s our culture,” Jon Oluf Brodersun, chief executive of Sparebank1, told DN. “I can say that the Sundby case surprised us and challenged us.”

Jacob Lund, the former sponsor chief for Norway’s biggest bank, DNB, has also criticized how Skiforbundet’s mangement handled the case. “A sponsor should be told the truth when so much money is involved,” Lund told DN.

Espen Bjervig, administration and market chief for Skiforbundet, and cross-country skiing chief Torbjørn Skogstad confirmed to DN that none of those who were negotiating the sponsorship deals were told about the doping charges, nor were the sponsors themselves. “It was handled by the president (Røste) and the secretary general (Opsal),” Skogstad said.

‘Thorough evaluation’ and ‘no further comment’
Neither Røste nor Opsal would respond directly to questions from DN, but Opsal wrote in a mail to DN that they have since conducted a “thorough evaluation” of the case along with their “partners.” He wrote that the “challenges tied to confidentiality were a central point in the evaluation, both internally and externally.” He otherwise had no further comment.

Skiforbundet also has claimed that it was Sundby himself who wanted to keep the doping charges against him secret until the process was completed, and ended in his suspension. Sundby has responded to TV2 that there “never was any intention of keeping it secret in the long term. At first we were held to confidentiality by the FIS (the international federation of skiing) and then it was important for me that the case was concluded before we went public.” Sundby has since said he also regrets the secrecy.

Not even the board of the skiing federation was informed until just a few hours before the news broke last summer. Røste and Skogstad sit on the board, and eventually called in the exclusive, pricey and often controversial PR firm First House to help guide release of the bad doping news. The board chairman now claims they should have been told.

Gold for Fall, bronze for Klæbo
While Røste and Skogstad remain in their jobs, Norway’s skiers themselves were out doing their jobs on the trails of Lahti in Finland this week. They’ve been shaken by the doping cases and critical of management as well, but on Thursday, Maiken Caspersen Falla managed to win Norway’s first gold medal at the Nordic World Ski Championships in the women’s sprint, while Johannes Høsflot Klæbo won a bronze medal in the men’s sprint.

Falla, at least, was thrilled by her victory, and so were her teammates, her mother, her fans and even her competitors. “She is a fantastic skier and she’s also a fantastic person,” raved Jessica Diggins of the US, who came in second behind Falla. Kikkan Randall of the US won the bronze. “I don’t have words for how proud I am of Maiken,” her mother, Heidi Caspersen, told state broadcaster NRK.

Klæbo wasn’t nearly as pleased by his bronze, barely smiling at the press conference afterwards. He lost the gold to Federico Pellegrino of Italy and the silver to Sergej Ustjugov of Russia, who was also disappointed over failing to win. “Third place is the other loser,” Klæbo remarked. He said he was “extremely nervous” before his World Championship debut (at the age of 20) and had a hard time waiting for the race’s start.

Neither Falla nor Klæbo seemed directly affected by the turmoil that continues to swirl around the skiing federation as they try to concentrate on their sport. The World Championships run through March 5.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund