On February 27, 2013 the Swedish Broadcaster SVT aired a documentary about high hematocrit values among top cross country skiers in the 1990s. In the program the journalists state that they have worked on this story for four years.
Uncovering anything in sports is hard. Trying to prove that iconic athletes in a very popular national sport has used prohibited substances or methods is even harder. In order to uncover such actions you need proof. When it comes to doping you would need blood or urine or both. Since blood bags or urine samples will be very hard to come by, using hematocrit values is not a bad second option.
So when the journalists in the program ‘Uppdrag Granskning’ got hold of a document showing who had suspicious high hematocrit values in a world cup race in Lahti in Finland in 1997, they finally had some proof that the national was not as clean as we would like it to be. It was not as clean as snow.
The source for the document was no other than shamed cross country skier coach, Finnish Kari Peka Kyrö. The Finn was head coach for the national cross country ski team in Finland 1991 when during the FIS Nordic World Ski Championships in Lahti in Finland the – more or less – entire team was caught for doping (Hemohes). He has recently given evidence to two now very discussed (at least in Norway) TV-documentaries on doping in cross country skiing – When Heros Lie (Finland) and now Blood Trails (SVT, Sweden).
The journalists behind the documentary decided to follow the blood trail and use hematocrit values that they had gotten from the Finnish coach. It is not wrong to follow the blood trail in endurance sports like cross country skiing or cycling for that matter.
Just to underline this:
In The Anti-Doping Database we had in 2013 registered 63 doping cases related to cross country skiing. Two publicly known cases was still unresolved – Veerpalu and a Finnish skier had both tested positive for human growth hormone (HGH). Russia, Finland and Austria topped our list of sanctioned athletes. EPO and EPO-related substances topped the list. We have also looked at which substance classifications is topping the list, and we see that products that enhances oxygen transfer has been used by the most athletes. 19 cases in total to be exact. Stimulants are in second place with 11 cases, while diuretics and other masking agents have six cases. Only five cases involves steroids.
Viewers watching the program was told that many athletes had high hematocrit values in the 1990s. The creators of the program had focused on those athletes that had been on the podium in World Cup races and World Championships in 1995 and 1997. “Unfortunately” for Norway, and for Norwegian cross country skiing, one skier dominated the sport in these years – Olympian Bjørn Dæhlie.
Therefor it was not odd that the journalists wanted to get in touch with him. Dæhlie is also the most decorated Winter Olympian. But there was also other Norwegian and Swedish athletes that was confronted by the journalists in the documentary. They also confronted Silvio Fauner from Italy and Vladimir Smirnov from Kazakhstan. There has been discussions about the methods the journalists used when confronting the athletes with their hematocrit values, but that is a different discussion which is related to journalism and not doping in sports.
Days before the documentary was sent, the national ski federations in Sweden and Norway have criticized the program heavily. They have stated that the hematocrit levels was measured with a machine that – compared to standards of today – don’t have the same level of accuracy. They are therefor claiming that using the hematocrit levels, especially for this competition and in the late 1990s must be cautious. There are room for errors in those levels they claimed.
In a chat related to the program after the documentary was aired, a visitor asked on vital question: Why is it then that for some athletes the hematocrit levels was normal, while for those on the podium they were high – and for some sky high? It is a plausible question.
As I learned after watching some debates and interviews after the show, the hematocrit levels is highly sensitive. It can depend on when the sample was collected, what the athlete had done just prior to sample collection and so on.
There is a standard in place for this now, and the methods are also different. Was it then wrong to use these values. Not really, as we have stated above.
One thing that I do react to is the reactions from the The Norwegian and Swedish Ski Federations. They are upset. Very upset. And they are entitled to be. After all we are talking about their most respected and decorated athletes being suspected for using prohibited substances or methods.
In the program they state that they have nothing to hide. If that is the truth, I am suggesting the following: publish, or make it possible for anyone to get this information easily, the hematocrit values for athletes from your countries during their careers. Show that you are as transparent as you stated in the documentary on SVT.
SVT held a debate about the program the following day. In this debate anti-doping expert Bengt Saltin – one of the experts being interviewed in the documentary – suggested that the national federations published the hematocrit values.
It is a good idea – not a new one – but a good one. When I say it is not a new one, it is because we’ve seen it in the sport of cycling, another endurance sport with doping problems. And so I am welcoming this idea.
In another debate, in another part of the world – at Yale university in the USA, CEO of United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), Travis Tygart, told that their agency is publishing testing statistics on the athletes they have jurisdiction over. It has been put in place because the athletes wanted it to be like that. I am therefor suggesting that cross country skiers tell The international ski federation (FIS) or their National Ski Federation to publish their hematocrit values online.
If there is nothing to hide, don’t hide it.
About hematocrit: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hematocrit
The documentary (link from February 27, 2013 – in Swedish): http://www.svt.se/ug/se-program/27-2-20-00?&autostart=false