Skateboarders, snowboarders and skiers were to start competing at the X Games in Oslo on Thursday, amidst charges that organizers of the event have failed to comply with anti-doping rules and received financial support from the City of Oslo under false pretenses. One former Oslo politician involved claims the conflict is more about power, money and position than doping itself.
As participants in the X Games “action sports events” prepared to fly off ramps and otherwise display daring athletic skills, local politicians, sports bureaucrats and the organizers of the event carried on a highly public quarrel in Norwegian media. At issue is the refusal of X Games’ owner ESPN, itself majority owned by the huge Walt Disney Company, to conduct drug testing during competition in line with the international anti-doping agency WADA’s regulations.
ESPN and its local X Games arranger, Norway’s national commercial television channel TV2, are also accused of extracting NOK 42 million in financial support from the City of Oslo through an agreement that a city politician from the Conservative Party claimed would “secure athletic values, such as anti-doping work.” ESPN has since refused to arrange or pay for doping controls of participants during the competion that runs through Sunday, and that led to the Norwegian national skiing federation breaking its own agreement with the organizers last weekend.
On Wednesday, TV2 itself reported that Norway’s snowboarding federation (Norges Snowboardforbund, NSF) had followed suit, saying it wanted doping controls to be carried out during competition. NSF stated that ESPN’s decision against testing during the X Games “is not in line” with international rules, which NSF said it must follow.
“We suspected all along that (the doping control) question hadn’t been clarified,” Bjørnar Moxnes, a member of Oslo’s City Council who voted against using taxpayer money to help finance the X Games, told newspaper Dagsavisen this week. “We were cheated by false premises. And we believed all along that the X Games violates the Norwegian model for arranging sports competition.”
Moxnes, leader of the Reds Party, also claimed that both TV2 and ESPN/Disney have enough money to finance the X Games themselves. “TV2 had a profit of NOK 719 million last year and the head of Disney’s own pay is equivalent to NOK 45 million,” Moxnes told Dagsavisen. “For the City of Oslo, NOK 42 million is actually quite a lot of money.”
On Wednesday, newspaper Aftenposten reported how the X Games also involves lots of entertainment, partying and even special food created by chefs flown in from New York. The roughly 25,000 tickets to sports events at Tøyen and Filipstad in Oslo and Wyller in the valley of Sørkedalen are also sold out, so lots of money is clearly circulating around the events.
The Labour Party, which now leads the city government in Oslo, joined the Reds in voting against funding for the X Games, as did the Socialist Left party (SV), but say they can’t withdraw it now. The city’s agreement to back X Games, in return for promotion of Oslo as a winter sports destination, was pushed through by the former conservative coalition running the city just a week before it left office after losing last year’s municipal election. “We have no possibility of voiding the agreement on the basis of what has happened,” the city’s top politician from Labour now in charge of sports and culture, Rina Mariann Hansen, told Aftenposten.
That’s not least because the agreement didn’t specify that anti-doping rules would be followed. It was signed by her predecessor, Hallstein Bjercke of the Liberal Party (which formerly shared city government power with the Conservatives) on October 15, 2015, and it contains no provisions for demanding drug testing. Aftenposten reported that when Bjercke was questioned by the City Council as to whether the X Games would be arranged in accordance with doping regulations, he responded that “This is described in a cooperation agreement under negotiations between TV2, Norges Skiforbund (the national skiing federation) and Norges Snowboardforbund (the national snowboarding federation). TV2 supports, at any rate, anti-doping work in sports and will cooperate with the sports (officials) on this, independent of the actual agreement.”
That may sound like politically vague wording to many, but Moxnes claims Bjercke thus “went far in guaranteeing that TV2 would follow the international doping rules, without having support for that. He should be a bit humble now.” TV2 has had to defer to ESPN on the matter, which won’t provide for drug testing during competition.
‘Desperate to retain control’
Bjercke seems anything but humble, claiming to several Norwegian media outlets that the entire conflict is “a last, desperate attempt” by the Norwegian sports bureaucrats heading the skiing federation to halt the X Games, which he claims they’ve opposed from the beginning. The commercially-run X Games themselves challenge Norwegian sports organizations’ “monopoly” on arranging competition on Norwegian soil, Bjercke said, claiming that they’ve never been comfortable with the event. “This challenges their whole model where the federations have control,” he said. “This (the conflict) isn’t about doping control, it’s about power, position and money.”
Nonsense, retorted Erik Røste, president of the skiing federation. “Just a week ago all the Nordic athletics ministers stood in Lillehammer (at the Youth Olympic Games) and declared they together will fight doping in sports, and they encourged Norwegian sports leaders to help with that,” Røste told Aftenposten. “We can’t, at the next big sporting event in Norway, support it if the organizers refuse to follow international anti-doping rules. I think Bjercke can understand that, if he thinks about it for awhile. And he can’t think it’s okay anymore to use NOK 42 million on an arrangement where the arrangers won’t conduct drug tests.”
Bjercke came back swinging. “I know these guys,” he told Aftenposten, after working closely with them on his former city government’s controversial and failed bid to host the Winter Olympics in Oslo in 2022. “They’ve been against the X Games the whole way. They wanted the city council to instruct TV2 on this, but the council refused to do so.”
Røste also has stressed that the federations themselves had worked “intensively” to have a drug control system in place for the X Games. “We had everything ready … the only thing ESPN needed to do was to … commit to following WADA’s international doping regulations.” That didn’t happen. “So we had no choice but to withdraw,” Røste said. “There was a lack of willingness on ESPN’s side.”
ESPN has responded in a mail to newspaper VG that “we have always communicated that X Games is an independent arrangement with its own regulations for competition and athletes.” It simply won’t test athletes for drugs during competion.
As the political intrigue swirled, the athletes themselves seemed more interested in just getting on with the games. One snowboarder told state broadcaster NRK on Wednesday that she thinks “there’s been an awful lot of talk about doping and rules and testing. I wish we could concentrate on the sports aspects here.”
One of Norway’s own snowboarding stars, Tiril Sjåstad Christiansen, told Dagsavisen on Thursday that she wishes X Games participants should be tested during competition, to remove any cloud of suspicion. She’s the youngest to ever have won a gold medal at the X Games, at the age of 17, and now, three years later, she criticized the decision against drug testing.
“I don’t think we should be treated any differently than those in other sports,” she told Dagsavisen. “And I’m afraid other sports will raise questions about why we’re not being tested.” ESPN’s decision not to test “is something I don’t support at all.”
She said she hasn’t been subjected to much testing this season, which runs from August to April. “But I was tested during the preliminary Olympics in South Korea (where she won the slopestyle competition last weekend),” she said. “Otherwise we can of course be tested anywhere, any time.”
Snowboard Super Pipe qualifying rounds for men were scheduled for Thursday at Wyller, with skateboarding competition taking place at Filipstad Thursday evening. Events run through Sunday.