Therese Johaug, known for screaming with joy when she won race after race on the international skiing circuit, sat still and unsmiling just before a two-day hearing began on doping charges against her on Wednesday. Prosecutor Niels Kiær revealed that the concentration of the banned steroid for which she tested positive in September was much higher than expected.
Johaug is fighting to save her reputation and position as the world’s top cross-country skier. After winning multiple Olympic medals and world championships over the years, she was “crushed” after routine drug testing in September found what was revealed on Wednesday to be 13 nanograms per milliliter of the steroid clostebol in her system.
“That’s a surprisingly high number given what we’ve heard earlier,” sports attorney Gunnar-Martin Kjenner told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK). He’s among experts commentating on Johaug’s historic doping case as it entered a critical phase this week.
“What will be decisive now is whether the number corresponds with the information Therese has given until now,” Kjenner told NRK.
She and the Norwegian skiing team’s doctor, who has since resigned his post, have insisted that the steroids found in her system came from a tube of salve she’d used to help treat sunburn blisters on her lips. The salve was given to her by the doctor himself after weeks of high-altitude late summer training in the Italian alps last year. Antidoping Norge, the prosecuting agency in the case, has accepted their explanation, but the steroid and the salve itself are on the list of banned substances and should never have been given to Johaug nor used by her.
Johaug thus faces a 14-month suspension that already has banned her from competition so far this winter season. The question now is whether she’ll be allowed to compete again starting in December, when the 14 months would expire, or whether her suspension may be lengthened or even shortened. It’s considered highly unlikely that she’ll be acquitted, because her doping test was positing and athletes remain ultimately responsible for what they ingest.
This week’s hearing functions much like a court case, with opening arguments on Wednesday delivered first by the prosecutor representing Antidoping Norge, Niels Kiær, and then by Johaug’s defense attorney Christian Hjort. Johaug herself was due to testify Wednesday afternoon, followed by the leader of the lab that conducted the drug testing and a professor in pharmacology.
The hearing was to continue on Thursday with testimony from the doctor who gave Johaug the banned salve, Fredrik Bendiksen, and who has apologized profusely and resigned over his error. Also testifying on Thursday will be Norwegian “ski queen” Marit Bjørgen, the country’s most-winning skier ever who’s both a teammate and close friend of Johaug’s. Her testimony will likely be as a character witness, with Bjørgen publicly stating that she hopes to help Johaug in her extremely difficult situation. Bjørgen’s testimony will be followed by closing arguments by both sides.
If Johaug’s 14-month suspension is upheld, she can once again compete in next season’s annual Tour de Ski and prepare for the next Winter Olympics in South Korea in 2018. She has said the prospect of Olympic competition is what’s motivating her now. Meanwhile she continues to train privately, since she also is banned from training with the national team.