Lindsey Vonn and the (Vast) Potential for Doping in Ski Racing

After a tabloid linked one of the best female ski racers on the planet to a notorious doping proponent, we decided to take a closer look at the possibilities of doping in the sport. What we found might surprise you.

    Photo: B.Stefanov via Shutterstock

A few weeks ago, the New York Daily News ran a story that made a very tenuous connection between Olympic ski racer Lindsey Vonn and Bernd Pansold, a doctor who was part of a program that surreptitiously administered steroids to East German athletes in the 1970s and 1980s. Pansold is now a doctor for Red Bull, Vonn’s biggest sponsor, and works to help improve the athletic performance of several athletes that the Austrian beverage and media company endorses. The story pointed out that Vonn’s interactions with Pansold were limited—that they’d exchanged “hellos”—and that Vonn had never failed a drug test. So when I finished reading, I felt strongly that the story hadn’t shown any real evidence that Vonn had ever taken performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs). But it did make me wonder: Are PEDs a problem among elite alpine ski racers?

Drugs aren’t typically associated with alpine ski racing because the sport appears to rely mainly on skill, not necessarily strength and stamina. The conventional wisdom is that gravity does most of the work. But the truth is that World Cup ski racers are fighting around five g-forces per turn, or about 900 pounds of pressure, for up to 90 turns. Olympic champ Bode Miller has been clocked at 12 Gs on certain turns on the course. Those are the kinds of forces fighter-jet pilots experience.

In fact, a ski race is like running a 1,000-meter sprint at full speed—three-quarters of the way down the course, an athlete’s lungs and muscles burn.

As somebody who grew up ski racing and later spent five years coaching the sport, I’ve always believed that the use of PEDs would benefit ski racers—having a little extra something in the tank could help these athletes maintain form and mental acuity as they approach the finish line. And in a sport often determined by hundredths of a second, even a small boost from a PED could increase strength and help a skier hold a more aggressive line, meaning the difference between winning and losing.

I’m not alone in that belief. In 2008, Bode Miller stated that PEDs like erythropoietin (EPO), a hormone that improves the oxygen levels in blood, would prevent skiers from becoming fatigued toward the end of the course, and therefore reduce the risk of injury.

And yet only two alpine ski racers in the history of the sport have tested positive for illegal substances. In 2002, Scottish skier Alain Baxter was stripped of the bronze medal he won at the Salt Lake City Olympics after methamphetamine was found in his blood. And in 2004, Austrian ski racer Hans Knauss was suspended 18 months after traces of nandrolone, a steroid, was found in his system. But here’s the thing: in both cases, the athletes were given blood tests, a rarity in alpine ski racing.

When I contacted the International Ski Federation (FIS), ski racing’s governing body, they told me that urine samples are used the majority of the time to test athletes for illegal substances, and that blood tests are only used at the World Championship and during the off-season. Here’s the problem with that: urine tests pick up on substances like EPO, while blood tests detect doping agents like human growth hormone (hGH), a substance that stimulates muscle growth.

Last season, former World Cup overall champ, Aksel Svindal, told Agence France-Presse that he wished blood samples were used more to test alpine skiers, suggesting that Svindal believes there might be something in the athletes' bloodstreams to test.

Of course, American athletes are under more scrutiny. The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), famous for bringing down the hammer on Lance Armstrong, performs tests separate from FIS. When I contacted American phenom Ted Ligety, he told me that about 18 months ago, he began submitting more blood samples. “It seems to be becoming the norm,” he says.

That said, Ligety and Vonn were only tested five times by USADA in 2012. Bode Miller was tested three times. By comparison, Olympic marathoner Kara Goucher was tested 17 times. Abdihakem Abdirahman, another American distance runner (who? you’re probably asking yourself), was tested 18 times.

When I emailed Brian Alexander, a journalist who’s written extensively about doping for Outside, he told me that “that sort of discrepancy partly reflects the way each federation handles testing and partly the fact that there have been many more doping cases in track, cycling, weightlifting, etc.”

A catch-22 of sorts: In order to increase the amount and quality of testing in alpine skiing, you’d first need catch more skiers in the act. So who should take the lead on that? The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), the supposed leaders in weeding out cheats? During the 2012/2013 off-season, that agency tested five of the close to 300 skiers who compete on the World Cup. None of those were blood tests.

Still, none of this means Lindsey Vonn takes performance-enhancing drugs. But I did want to know why Red Bull employs a doctor who spent time in prison for administering steroids to East German athletes, so I asked them.

They responded, essentially saying that they don’t care what he’s done in the past, they have complete faith in him now. Here’s a sample of their statement: “We have been working with Dr. Pansold, one of the world's finest sports scientists, for ten years. Anyone who knows us and works with us shares our values of integrity, fairness and honesty in sport. Dr. Pansold has always held our trust and repaid our faith in him. His work at the Diagnostics and Training Centre in Thalgau is beyond question, in the context of sports medicine and also ethically.”

They also threw this out there: “It goes without saying that not one of our approximately 600 athletes throughout the world, among them several Olympic and world champions, has ever been under suspicion of doping.”

That seemed suspicious. Of the 600 pro athletes that Red Bull works with, not one has been suspected of doping? I did a Google search and pretty quickly found that in 2008 Jon Conway and Jeff Parke, both soccer players at the time for the New York Red Bulls (a major league soccer team owned by Red Bull), each received a 10-game ban after testing positive for androstatriendione and boldenone metabolites. They claimed they’d failed the test after taking tainted supplements.

I ran this by Red Bull and they emailed back, saying they stood by their initial statement.* (Huh?)

None of this proves that Red Bull runs a doping program. It just shows that the $6 billion company doesn’t feel they need to answer to anybody. That’s enough to generate suspicion.

And maybe that’s exactly what the sport of ski racing needs. If alpine ski racers are doping, perhaps this is the wake-up-call that will galvanize anti-doping agencies into stepping up their efforts.

Maybe they already have. At the Council of Fashion Designers of America Awards last night in New York City, agents from the International Olympic Committee—yet another agency that monitors blood doping—asked a dolled up Lindsey Vonn to walk to a nearby bathroom and submit to a test. Of course, it was only a urine test.

*In an email received after this story was published, Red Bull clarified that they don't count players for their soccer team among their sponsored athletes.

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