Biathlon bosses under investigation

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UPDATED: Police in both Norway and Austria have taken aim at the top international leaders of biathlon, the sport that combines skiing and shooting. Both the Norwegian president of the International Biathlon Union (IBU), who denies doing anything wrong, and the IBU’s secretary general in Austria are under investigation for alleged economic crimes and concealing 65 doping cases, following raids in both countries on Tuesday.

The difficult sport of biathlon combines fast cross-country skiing with shooting. Police in both Norway and Austria are now investigating the sport’s top leaders. PHOTO: IBU

Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) initially reported Wednesday afternoon that the raids were carried out in connection with alleged economic crimes tied to the IBU. NRK and other Norwegian media including newspapers VG and Aftenposten later reported that the investigation also involves suspicions that IBU’s leaders failed to follow up on abnormal blood test results from athletes and thus allegedly concealed as many as 65 doping cases.

The IBU itself reported that the Austrian Federal Criminal Police carried out a “property search under warrant” at the IBU headquarters in Salzburg. The IBU wrote in a press release that the search was linked to the investigation, which  centers on IBU President Anders Besseberg of Vestfossen in Norway and IBU Secreatry General Nicole Resch.

“Austrian authorities suspect the Norwegian of economic crime,” prosecutor Anna Haugmoen Mo of Norway’s national economic crime unit Økokrim told NRK. “Questions about the investigation must be directed to Austrian authorities.” She made no mention of doping suspicions as well, but NRK reported that the international anti-doping agency WADA has “quietly” been examining the IBU itself. Tuesday’s raids reportedly occurred after WADA had shared information it had collected with Norwegian and Austrian police.

IBU president Anders Besseberg of Norway has held on to control at IBU for 26 years. PHOTO: IBU

The 72-year-old Besseberg, a former cross-country skier and biathlon athlete who went on to become a coach in the UK and Norway, is a founding member of WADA and served on its board. He had been president of the IBU since it was founded in the early 1990s, and was re-elected to his fifth term in September 2014.

Besseberg denies any wrongdoing. “I believe we have followed the rules,” he told NRK. He also told Aftenposten that “we send the blood tests to the WADA-accredited laboratory in Oslo and get reports back if there are abnormal results. We follow up on those.”

Besseberg confirmed investigators had raided his home in Vestfossen, about an hour’s drive west of Oslo, and he told NRK Thursday morning that they seized various communications devices. He told Aftenposten he was questioned by Austrian police in Norway and expects to be called in to a hearing in Austria. “I have answered all the questions that were raised,” Besseberg said. “I had an attorney present.” He has also been put on leave pending the investigation.

‘Very surprising and extremely serious’
A spokesman for WADA had also told NRK that the investigation is tied to doping without being willing to elaborate. Many questions remain, with officials at Norway’s own national biathlon organization (Norges Skiskytterforbund) saying they were surprised by the raids and investigation.

“It is of course surprising and extremely serious that our international president is under investigation,” Erlend Slokvik, who serves as president of the Norwegian organization, told Aftenposten. “But we don’t know any more than what’s coming out in the media about this. We have had contact with the IBU and been told we will get more information later.”

Norwegian newspaper Dagbladet reported that Besseberg has hung on to power at IBU and run the organization “with a hard hand.” Dagbladet and other Norwegian media also reported that Tuesday’s raids were being viewed in connection with an NRK report earlier this winter about accusations made by Gregory Rodchenkov, the former head of a doping laboratory in Moscow. He claims blood tests of Russian biathlon athletes were “manipulated and sabotaged” before the Winter Olympics in Sochi in 2014.

“Russia received sensitive information from the IBU,” Rodchenkov told NRK this week from a secret location in the US, where he has sought protection after alleged death threats. “But the IBU wouldn’t, for unknown reasons, go into depth and investigate the Russian athletes.” Besseberg rejected Rodchenkov’s assertions.

Seizures and new acting leadership
Police have reportedly seized several of IBU’s computers and questioned Secretary General Resch in Salzburg. She has also gone on leave while the investigation proceeds.

“The IBU Executive Board (which Besseberg has headed) is taking the matter extremely seriously and continues to be committed to operating under the highest standards of good governance and transparency,” the IBU wrote in its press release. IBU’s executive director, Martin Kuchenmeister, has been named as acting secretary general while the investigation proceeds.

Biathlon is popular in Norway, which has produced many stars of the sport in recent years. Two of them, Ole Einar Bjørndalen and Emil Hegle Svendsen, retired just in the past week.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund