Johaug fights to save her career

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UPDATED: Norway’s cross-country skiing champion Therese Johaug was back testifying on her own behalf this week, as she continued to vigorously defend herself against doping charges. Now she welcomes a verdict from the Swiss court of arbitration handling sports cases (CAS), as she tries to save her brilliant career.

Skier Therese Johaug’s attorney Christian B Hjort (left) was once again by her side when she had to appear on Tuesday before the Court of Arbitration in Switzerland. Johaug is hoping for a full acquittal of doping charges. PHOTO: NRK screen grab

“I’ll get an international verdict, and then no one can go behind my back and say that I was punished either too hard or too mildly because I’m Norwegian and was judged by Norwegians,” Johaug told news bureau NTB. “So for me, this can be good.”

Johaug faced a long day on Tuesday, and told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) at the end of it that “it was tough and there were tears” but that it also was “a good experience.” She testified before a panel of three international judges about why and how she used a lip cream last summer that left her testing positive for a non-performance-enhancing steroid. She’d been given the lip cream to relieve sores on her sunburned lips by the doctor for the Norwegian national ski team, who bought it at an Italian pharmacy near where the team was training. He wasn’t aware the cream contained the steroid, has been harshly criticized afterwards and quickly resigned his post.

It all led to a dramatic conviction by a Norwegian jury that left the multiple-gold-medal-winning Johaug suspended from all competition for 13 months. That meant that she missed this past winter’s entire season.

The international skiing federation FIS nonetheless appealed the 13-month suspension, with NRK reporting Tuesday that FIS wants a 16- to 20-month suspension instead. FIS’ appeal leaves the CAS to seal Johaug’s fate. She’s most keen to salvage the next season heading into the Winter Olymics in 2018, so she can compete in China next year.

Johaug was accompanied by her Norwegian lawyer Christian B Hjort and Mike Morten, a British legal expert who has handled several doping cases involving sports stars. He has called Johaug’s case “very special,” telling Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) over the weekend that it points up problems in the international doping rules. While athletes are ultimately responsible for everything they ingest, few would contest their own doctor’s advice. Johaug has argued she has “zero blame in this case,” not least because she was given the cream by the team’s doctor and merely followed his advice. Many other athletes, including star skier Marit Bjørgen, have said they would have done the same.

Tuesday’s hearing ran for around six hours and was closed to the public. The players were also asked by the judicial panel not to comment on the testimony. Among them was Johaug’s and the ski team’s former doctor Fredrik Bendiksen, who took full blame for the lip cream use and has refused to speak publicly since. He broke his silence outside the hearing to tell reporters, though, that he was “satisfied” with the proceedings and felt he was able to clarify his position “in a good manner” and offer details of what had happened. He was Johaug’s only witness on Tuesday.

Matthieu Reeb, CAS’ secretary general, told NRK that the panel of judges usually tries to take athletes’ careers and participation in important events into consideration when deciding on a verdict. Johaug was hoping for full acquittal, or at least that her 13 suspension be upheld. If it’s extended beyond 15 months, it will likely make it impossible for her to compete in the next Olympics.

A verdict is due later this summer. Berglund