One common explanation from the Norwegian Ski Federation to the high blood values that has surrounded Norwegian xc-skiers during the 90s and last decade, has been successful high altitude training programs. Yes I know, it sounds strange, since the other argument has been that there hasn’t been anything but normal values in the Norwegian xc-skiing except high values due to malfunctioning hemocue equipment. It’s quite fascinating to hear those two contradictive arguments being put forward without embarrassment by the same persons.
One person was central in the development of the Norwegian High Altitude program, the American Jim Stray-Gundersen. He was employed by Olympiatoppen in 1997.
In 1996, Dr. Stray-Gundersen and his family were invited and moved to Oslo, Norway to work for The Norwegian School of Sport and The Norwegian Olympic Committee. His primary research was altitude training, performance training, and anti-doping work. He became director of the High Altitude Performance for the 2002 Olympic Games. Dr. Stray-Gundersen was a member of the 2002 Norwegian Olympic Team as an official member/physician for the team.
After the 2002 Olympic Games, Dr. Stray-Gundersen and his family moved to Park City, Utah.
In the publication "Living high-training low" (2.) from 1997, Stray-Gundersen together with Levine claims that you can reach considerable gain in HB values by living in high altitude during training periods, something that will be beneficial in competing at lower altitude. This is the scientist which the NSF (Norwegian Ski Federation) is leaning on when they claims that they could peak blood values to competitions by high altitude programs. The same Stray-Gundersen that was hired during some of the darkest championships ever in XC-skiing, Ramsau 1999, Lahti 2001 och Salt Lake 2002
There is just a big problem for Stray-Gundersen and the Norwegians, no research whatsoever have confirmed the article from 1997. In a publication from the University of Zurich 2013 by Robert A Jacobs the paper by Stray-Gundersen is more or less destroyed:
Some Quotes: Thus, the potential for LHTL [Living high, training low] to improve carrying capacity in elite athletes lacks probablility (Rasmussen et al., 2013; Robach and Lundby 2012) and reliability/consistency (Gore et al., 1998; Neya et al, 2007; Siebenmann et al., 2012).
Hitherto, primarily one study reports data that could reasonably be interpreted as an improvement in sea-level performance with LHTL, compared to a complementary sea-level group of athletes (Levine and Stray-Gundersen 1997). This study unfortunately did not blind either the researchers or the subjects and therefore cannot discount effects of either a placebo or nocebo effect on the outcome of the study.
This up to date research is of course not unknown to the well-funded and ambitious NSF, but it doesn’t stop them from referring to obsolete research in explaining high HB values among Norwegian skiers. The frustration of prof. Saltin in last year’s documentary and the following debate thus is perfectly explainable and coherent. One counterpart in the debate was former skiing coach Dag Kaas. Let us examine the connection between Kaas and Stray-Gundersen.
Before Salt Lake City Olympics in 2002, Norwegian ski star Bente Skari made an ambitious High Altitude training program together with personal coach Dag Kaas and Stray-Gundersen. In an article from the newspaper Verdens Gang 2002 (4.) some interesting facts are revealed. Especially these sentences where you could see that enhightened HB values were in focus:
Jim Stray Gundersen har kunnskapen om høyde. Skari og Kaas har samarbeidet tett med ham. Norsk-amerikaneren eier et hus ikke langt unna OL-stadion og var med til USA sommeren 2000.
- Han tok tester på Bentes blodvolum som ga oss en klar pekepinn på at hun var på riktig vei. Det var en viktig bekreftelse å få. Det ga ekstra motivasjon, forklarer Kaas.
Jim Stray Gundersen has knowledge of altitude training. Skari and Kaas has a close working relationship with him. The Norwegian-American owns a house not far from the Olympic Stadium, and was with the U.S. in summer of 2000.
- He took samples on Bente's blood volume that gave us a clear indication that we were on the right track. It was an important confirmation to receive. It provided extra motivation, says Kaas.
When Norwegian newspaper Dagbladet 2001 (5.) presented a bunch of Norwegian skiers blood values, Skari was missing with the following explanation:
Dagbladet fikk ikke tak i Bente Skari i går kveld, men ifølge hennes personlige trener Dag Kaas ligger Bente så lavt som mellom 12 og 13 i hemoglobinverdier.
Dagbladet could not get hold of Bente Skari last night, but according to her personal trainer Dag Kaas, Bente is as low as between 12 and 13 in hemoglobin values.
That blood values were in focus in Norwegian xc-skiing and also tended to be rather high is confirmed by an article in Norwegian newspaper Nordlys 2006 (6.). Here it is revealed that Olympiatoppen brought forward a document with the help of Stray-Gundersen, with the following advice:
gir norske utøvere og trenere helt klare råd om hvordan man skal unngå for høye blodverdier ved testing.
giving Norwegian athletes and coaches clear advice in how to avoid high blood levels in testing situations.
Why on earth this should be needed since everyone in Norwegian and Swedish XC-skiing has normal values according to NSF. Which was …… [cough] …… proved when NSF last year produced some blood values from Norwegian skiers off season.
A reoccurring argument has been that it has been incredibly hard to publish the figures, even if they wanted to.
In a paper from 2007 (7.) it’s stated that FIS 2001-2007 collected 7081 blood samples from 1074 skiers where both HB and rets was measured. Surely it must include some skiers from the most dominant nation, or?
Moreover, Stray-Gundersen who were employed by the Norwegians 1997-2003 collected 1999-2002 blood-samples from more than 1000 athletes in skate, Nordic Combination, XC and Biathlon. Some athletes were tested more than 14 times with a promise to be anonymous. But with the consent from the skiers it could not be a problem for NSF to get hold of this data, from a former employee?
Where is the follow up questions from the media, to NSF who delivers nothing more than smokescreens?
All this should be really embarrassing for Stray-Gundersen. A unison science community doesn’t confirm the benefits with high altitude training that he has claimed he has reached with the Norwegian XC-ski team. To me it seems clear that the high altitude program, that was common among the Norwegians in the late 90s and early 2000s, was a perfect cover in hiding blood manipulation/doping. Or was this acclaimed scientist so naïve that the skiers doped without his knowledge during the high altitude camps, and he was happy to see that his program gave stunning results, without any suspicions? I don’t know what is more devastating to a scientist, but after all, maybe it was just naivety from Stray-Gundersen? As the man in charge of the High Altitude program in Olympiatoppen he was not responsible just for the XC-team. The doctor and trainer Thor-Øistein Endsjø raises some interesting concerns in the Norwegian newspaper Bergens Tidene (unfortunately the article is moved from internet):
Dette er tall også Thor-Øistein Endsjø stusser over. Han var inntil for få år tilbake lege for både friidrettsforbundet og skøyteforbundet.
- Vi drev også høydetrening med våre utøvere, men var aldri i nærheten av å få det hemoglobinnivået som langrenn påstår at de har fått. Grete Waitz og Ingrid Kristiansen, som også drev med høydetrening, kom aldri over verdier på 12,5 og 14,5. Vår erfaring var at høydetrening kunne gi en økning på 0,5, sier Endsjø og legger til:
- Jeg er full av spørsmål.
Thor-Einstein Endsjø also choked over those figures. He was until a few years back, doctor for both the Athletics and Skating Association.
- We also ran altitude training programs with our athletes, but we were never close to the HB-levels cross country claim that they had reached. Grete Waitz and Ingrid Kristiansen, who also participated in altitude training, never got values higher than 12.5 and 14.5. Our experience was that altitude training could give an increase of 0.5, says Endsjø adding:
- I have so many questions
So do I.