Fifty years ago this week the most celebrated Norwegian was a cross-country skier. Valiant skiers, of course, have never suffered from lack of recognition in Norway, but the most remarkable thing about this hero may well have been his medical team. After a disastrous 30 km race, Gjermund Eggen scored three victories in the remaining three races at the Nordic World Ski Championships hosted by Oslo.
What happened to him during the critical days that preceded the second contest?
Reporting from Holmenkollen, a Finnish journalist briefly referred to an unnamed Norwegian whose red blood cell mass had been topped up in a clinic. In today’s parlance, the anonymous athlete had resorted to blood packing, a procedure which, especially in endurance events, gives the recipient an enormous boost.
Fifteen years later another Finnish journalist published a delightfully revisionist account of blood packing in sport. At the time, the conventional wisdom held that Finnish runners such as Lasse Viren started manipulating their red blood cell count in the early 1970s, after which athletes from other countries followed suit. According to the 1981 report, however, the first undisputed case of blood packing took place in 1966, and the beneficiary was Gjermund Eggen, bib number 45.
Of course, blood transfusion was a perfectly legitimate procedure in any sport until 1985. The two Finnish commentators never suggested that Eggen (or his advisers) might have done something wrong or even remotely unethical, and there’s no sensationalist intention on my part either.
Where did the sportive use of packed red blood cells actually originate? Possibly in Norway, at least in the sphere of skiing, but as I pointed out in my contribution to the Routledge Handbook of Drugs and Sport (2015), Swedish physiologists Björn Ekblom and Per-Olof Åstrand freely proposed blood packing to their protégés in the 1960s.
Hopefully my knowledgeable Scandinavian colleagues will soon settle the exciting issue once and for all. Did Eggen and his compatriots inaugurate the era of blood transfusion in skiing? If not, did the Swedes get a head start over their rivals?
Either way, I’m sad to say that my native country hardly deserves a medal in this particular contest. Shame on the slow-witted Finnish skiers and their so-called medical experts!