UPDATED: Norway’s cross-country skiing star Therese Johaug, crying throughout a mid-day press conference on Thursday, repeated claims that she was “crushed” after testing positive for a banned steroid that was contained in a medical cream she used to treat sunburned lips last summer. She also said she was “furious” and “so innocent” in the doping violation that has thrown Norwegian sports into a new crisis.
“This situation is completely indescribable,” Johaug said between sobs during what must rank as one of the most painful press conferences in local memory. Here was Norway’s crown princess of skiing, with multiple Olympic gold medals, World Cup and World Championship victories, inconsolable in front of an assembled Norwegian press corps and on live TV aired nationwide by Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) and TV2.
Norway’s national skiing federation (Norges Skiforbund) had issued a press release earlier in the day stating that Johaug had tested positive for a mild but banned anabolic steroid called clostebol after using a cream called Trofodermin that had been given to her by the national skiing team’s doctor to treat sunburned lips. The federation said Johaug suffered the sunburn during high-elevation training with Norway’s national ski team in Italy at the end of August, and it led to painful, open sores on her lips that needed treatment.
Now Johaug is suffering the most pain of all, after noting how she has landed in “an athlete’s worst nightmare.” Her sobbing and disheveled appearance confirmed her statement issued in the press release Thursday morning: “I’m completely crushed and in despair after landing in this extremely difficult and, for me, unreal situation. I feel this is unfair and not my fault, even though I’m of course aware of the responsibility I, as an athlete, have for the medicine I use.”
She also said, however, that she was “furious” because “I asked (the doctor) if the cream was on the doping list, and he said ‘no.’ I relied 100 percent on that.” She added that the doctor, Fredrik S Bendiksen, “is an expert on sports medicine” and she’d had “full confidence’ in him. She said she feels “so innocent in this case.”
Bendiksen took full responsibility for Johaug’s use of the lip cream and announced his immediate resignation as chief physician for Norway’s national cross-country skiing team. He said he was also in despair over the situation, since he had given Johaug two creams that he had purchased at an Italian pharmacy since he lacked such medication in his own medical bag. One of them didn’t work, the other did, and she used them for 11 days in early September.
“Therese is an incredibly disciplined person and athlete who is very precise in everything she does,” Bendiksen said. “The most important thing for me now is to do all I can so that she won’t be punished because she used a cream that I had assured her was legal to use.” The federation noted that the doctor was unaware the Trofodermin cream contained clostebol, which has been described as a low-grade steroid and is on the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA)’s list of prohibited substances.
Johaug used the cream between September 4 and 15. On Friday September 16, Johaug submitted an out-of-competition urine sample for routine testing and reported her use of the Trofodermin cream. The sample revealed clostebol and on October 4, Johaug was informed of the violation by Antidoping Norge. An investigation is now underway and Johaug faces being banned from competition on the eve of the skiing season, not least because any form of steroid is seen as a performance-enhancing substance that’s illegal.
It’s the second time in recent months that Norway’s national ski team’s medical apparatus has been blamed for prescribing medicine or their usage that’s landed athletes in trouble. Skiing champion Martin Johnsrud Sundby was punished over how he used an asthma medicine, and questions are still flying over sports officials’ alleged recommendations that skiers who don’t suffer from asthma also could use asthma medicine. The Norwegian doctors claimed it was a preventive measure to ward off bronchial congestion before major races. Critics claim it was aimed at enhancing performance.
Bendiksen, who said he has worked within the field of sports medicine for 36 years, had no explanation as to why he did not “register” that the cream for Johaug’s lip sores contained a substance that’s also banned in Norway and not even used in cosmetics. He admitted under questioning that he had not read the leaflet that came tucked inside the box containing the tube of Trofodermin cream, but did read the box itself. “It is my personal mistake as a doctor and I will take the consequences of that,” he said before announcing his resignation. “I am deeply unhappy … that I have put Therese into the situation she’s in.”
Harsh criticism of the Norwegian skiing federation’s medical apparatus was already pouring in, before the press conference began. The leader of the federation’s cross-country skiing committee, Torbjørn Skogstad, claimed it was most important “to take care of Therese and Fredrik in the best possible way, and to have full openness about what has happened.” He called the new doping violation “a serious situation both for Therese Johaug, Fredrik Bendiksen and Norwegian cross-country skiing.”
Neither Skogstad nor Erik Røste, president of federation, however, offered their own resignations, pending results of the doping investigation. Røste called it “a terribly sad day” and also expressed concern for Johaug and Bendiksen. “We will stand together in this difficult situation,” Røste said despite Bendiksen’s resignation. “The board is worried that Norwegian cross-country skiing has again landed in a demanding situation, and wants to take steps to prevent this from happening again.” He could not specify what those steps might involve.
Several events meant to mark the upcoming opening of the ski season on Thursday were cancelled. Officials instead were preparing for more meetings and more questions as they found themselves fending off another doping scandal that challenges Norway’s credibility as a dominant ski nation.