She’s been the darling of Norwegian cross-country skiing fans, known for all her victories in international competition, for screaming and laughing with joy after crossing the finish line first, and for even throwing herself into the open arms of King Harald V. On Tuesday Therese Johaug told Norwegian reporters she was “completely crushed” after an international panel of arbitrators found her guilty of violating anti-doping regulations, and banned her from competition for a second full season.
She faced the reporters 24 hours after being handed the tough punishment from the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in Lausanne, Switzerland, and just a half-hour after CAS released the decision to the media. Johaug had sobbed uncontrollably at earlier press conferences after she’d first tested positive in a doping test and when she was initially suspended from competition. On Tuesday she was more controlled but resigned as well, often staring vacantly in between speaking in a low voice and fighting back tears. There was no pounding on the table this time, and no pained shrieks.
She is still angry, though. “I had a dream of going to the Olympics,” said Johaug, who had told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) last December, as she kept training hard alone at Sjusjøen in Norway, that the prospect of the next Winter Olympics was what kept her going. Now she’s been told she won’t be allowed to take part in the Olympics, nor in any other competition all season long. Her 18-month suspension from the sport she loves runs through the entire winter.
“It’s a shock, it hasn’t really set in that my dream has been shattered,” Johaug said. She said she had “tried as well as I could to deal with all this, worked every single day and trained an enormous amount, to try to win in Pyeongchang (the South Korean city that’s hosting the next Olympics).
“I can’t understand the punishment I’ve received. I think it’s unfair. I have been treated unfairly.” Asked if she feels CAS is making an example of her case, after years of how Norwegian skiers have dominated the sport, she shrugged her shoulders and stared vacantly ahead.
It was one thing to miss the entire last World Cup ski season. Now she’s out for two full seasons, and the question remains whether the 29-year-old Johaug will make a comeback or retire from the sport. She won’t be able to compete again until the 2018-19 season, and the next major international event will be the World Championships in Februry 2019. She hinted she’ll be there.
“I have a dream of standing on the starting line again,” she said. “So we’ll see what the future brings.”
The press conference took place back in Seiser Alm in the Italian Alps, where Johaug has been training on her own since she’s not allowed to train with her old colleagues on the national ski team. It’s also the same place where she got the lip sunburn during late summer training last year, and where the team’s doctor bought the cream at a local Italian pharmacy to treat her painful lip sores. CAS holds Johaug herself, however, responsible for not checking the cream’s packaging and noticing the warnings that it contained a banned substance.
Johaug, who said that she felt she deserved “a little upturn.” Instead she received what what former skiing champion and NRK commentator Fredrik Aukland called “the worst decision she could have received.” After facing the Norwegian reporters for around 15 minutes, she said “I have nothing more to say today, and hope you have respect for that.” She then left the room in tears.
Her manager Jørn Ernst was as devastated as Johaug was, having to break away from a live interview with NRK because he was overcome by emotion. Johaug’s lawyer in Oslo, Christian Hjort, told NRK that neither he nor Johaug can understand why the ruling is so harsh.
“She can’t understand that the sport can ban her for two full seasons for using a lip cream that could neither enhance performance nor have any effect, and which she took responsibility for controlling with an expert (the team doctor),” Hjort told NRK. He noted that when the ruling itself claims there was no intentional cheating, but that she made a mistake, the 18-month ban appears incomprehensible and out of proportion.
Gunnar Martin Kjenner, another Norwegian lawyer specializing in sports issues, also called the 18-month ban “completely unreasonable” and “terrible.” He said he couldn’t understand how the panel of arbitrators at CAS “could land at such a result. It defies my sense of justice.” CAS has claimed that the ruling, which was delayed several times, was unanimous.
The full text of the ruling from CAS can be found here (external link).
Norway’s national skiing federation (Norges Skiforbundet) also expressed shock after the ruling against Johaug was announced. “I don’t think there’s a correlation here between the mistake that was made and the consequences it has,” said the federation’s president, Erik Røste, in a press release.
Bjørgen: ‘Athletes very vulnerable’
“Like so many others I really feel for Therese today, and am disappointed by this decision,” Røst told reporters in Oslo. He stressed, thought, that he respects the international skiing federation (FIS)’s right to appeal the Norwegian suspension of 13 months.
Vidar Løfshus, chief of Norway’s national ski team, said he was “in shock” and that it was “very difficult” to handle the decision. Skiing champion Marit Bjørgen, one of Johaug’s many teammates and a close friend, said she was “pained” by CAS’ decision and “in despair that Therese must pay such a high price in a case where she’s been believed on all points.” She called CAS decision “deeply unfair” and said it showed that due process of the law for athletes is “very” vulnerable.
“The most important thing now is to take the best possible care of Therese and everyone involved,” Lofshus said. He seemed to count on Johaug making a comeback: “When Therese becomes part of the national team again, we will all do everything we can that she gets the help she needs.” And when Johaug was asked whether she’d be out training hard again tomorrow, she answered “Yes.”