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Swedish Documentary Casts New Shadow on Estonian Skiers Suspected of Doping

A nearly hour-long television documentary aired Wednesday night on Swedish public television, SVT. If there's a saving grace for Estonians, it's that it paints a universally bleak picture of the pro skiing circuit in the 2000s: if the claims are accepted at face value, everyone was doping. 

But specifically, the documentary directed by Hasse Svens and colleague Magnus Svenungsson alleges the International Ski Federation had a list of 19 athletes suspected of doping. Although the Estonians are not the subject of the documentary, the list included Estonians Andrus Veerpalu, Jaak Mae and Kristina Šmigun.

While gold winners Šmigun and Veerpalu have long been eyed with suspicion, in the case of Mae, it is the first time the bronze medalist has been mentioned in connection with doping (although he was once not allowed to compete due to a high hemogloblin level). Mae, who, like the others, denies ever using banned substances, is currently the managing director of the Estonian Ski Federation.  

The ETV investigatiive program Pealtnägija was among the first to get a preview of the documentary, which has long been anticipated and, perhaps, feared by some athletes.

The documentary revolves around a program that was instituted after the notorious Lahti world championships of 2001, when the Finnish team was hit by extensive doping charges.

Svens got his hands on a database from that program, containing data for top skiers' samples taken in the years that followed, 2001-2006. He also interviewed the now-retired originator of the testing program, Bengt Saltin. 

Two comments by interview subjects sum up why the numbers obtained by Svens are a red flag.

"The beauty lies in the data that can be seen in one person's hemoglobin over time," said Salt Lake City Olympic anti-doping manager Don Catlin. "No matter what your natural figure is, it will always remain more or less the same level. You don't have 16 today, 14 yesterday. It does not work that way."

Professor Alessandro Donati, a doping expert, said that athletes, coaches and doctors think about one thing: staying close to the border.

"It is clear. Because high hemoglobin 17, 17, 17, 17, 17, 17, 17, 17 are all skiers, this population is not normal," he said. "Because a normal population of an edurance sports is usually 13, 13, 13, or 14, 14, 14. Do you understand? A 17 means other things are having an impact on the athlete," Donati said.

As well as Estonia, the list obtained by SVT includes skiers from Finland, Russia, Belarus, Switzerland, Norway, Germany and Austria.

 In comments to Pealtnägija, Mae denied ever using banned substances. Pealtnägija also asked Šmigun the same. She reiterated her denial strongly, and said that over the years she had donated hundreds of samples for hemoglobin testing and that the results were widely known by a number of instances. She said her results were always well below the limits, and hunting for discrepancies at this late date and attributing them to reasons other than training-related ones was malicious. 

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