Norwegian skier Therese Johaug won important support on Thursday in her fight against suspension on doping charges, from both the national team’s doctor and her fellow star skier Marit Bjørgen. Both relieved her of full blame for using a lip salve to treat sunburn sores that contained a banned steroid.
“I would have done the same as Therese in this situation,” Bjørgen testified in her role as character witness for Johaug. The lip salve had been given to Johaug by the team’s respected doctor, Fredrik Bendiksen, a veteran in the field of sports medicine. He had bought it for her at a pharmacy in Italy where the Norwegian women’s ski team was training late last summer.
Johaug testified on Wednesday that she asked Bendiksen if the cream was approved for use and that he said it was. She used it for several days, which resulted in her testing positive for the banned steroid clostebol that was found in the salve called Trofodermin.
Prosecutors at Antidoping Norge claim Johaug should thus be suspended until December, because she didn’t examine the salve herself, or double-check that her doctor’s advice was correct. Johaug disagrees strongly.
“I did take responsibility, to ask him,” testified Johaug, adding that she had no reason to doubt his advice or examine the salve more closely. Bjørgen testified on Thursday that she wouldn’t have doubted Dr Bendiksen either, noting that it would have been unusual to check medications beyond what the team doctors had approved and, as in this case, distributed to an athlete.
Had ‘full confidence’ in the team’s doctor
“As a doctor with many years on the national team I had full confidence in him and would have relied on him,” Bjørgen testified. “I would have relied more on Fredrik than to check out the medicine myself.”
Dr Bendiksen, meanwhile, blames himself for the serious error he made in not realizing that the salve contained a banned steroid. No one, including himself, can understand how he could have made such a mistake, especially since the salve’s own packaging in Italy is clearly marked with a steroid warning.
“It was a shock,” Bendiksen testified on Thursday, to learn that the warning even existed. He simply hadn’t noticed it. “I never saw the marking (on the packaging), not at the pharmacy, not at the hotel, nowhere,” he testified.
He has since resigned from the team and, reported Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK), fought back tears at the hearing when describing how he realized his mistake had led to “full crisis” for Johaug. “The worst thing we can think of, is for one of the athletes to test positive,” he said.
“There’s no excuse for what happened,” he testified. “This has plagued me for four months.”
‘I will return’
One of the judges at the hearing questioned whether athletes have received any explicit messages that they must examine medications themselves in addition to receiving doctors’ advice. “The question is whether Therese Johaug has carried out her responsibility,” said Judge Ivar Sølberg. “Is it written anywhere … ‘don’t rely on the national team doctor, but do your own investigations?'”
Johaug’s defense attorney Christian Hjort claimed it was not, nor could prosecutor Niels Kiær produce any evidence of such.
“This has been a good day for Johaug,” concluded Gunnar-Martin Kjenner, a sports lawyer following the case for NRK. He claimed it had “been documented” that it’s not common practice to double-check doctors’ advice.
At stake is when Johaug can return to the national ski team and start competing again. Even though this season has been spoiled, she remains keen on making a comeback and competing next season, especially at the Winter Olympics in South Korea in 2018.
“I want this case to be as illuminated as possible, I want to obtain a decision I can deal with,” she said on Wednesday. “I will return to the ski trails.”