Pealtnägija: Ski coach Alaver was 'the general' of illegal doping scene

Mati Alaver (right) at his Harju County Court hearing, late last year.
Mati Alaver (right) at his Harju County Court hearing, late last year. Source: Siim Lõvi/ERR

Disgraced national ski coach Mati Alaver was nicknamed "the general" within the international doping fraternity, an episode of ETV investigative show "Pealtnägija" due to broadcast Wednesday evening finds, and former ski star Andrus Veerpalu was instrumental in providing doping – essentially the illegal removal of an athlete's blood ahead of a competition, only to replace it shortly before a race to boost performance – to his son, Andreas, a skier caught up with several others following a police swoop at least year's world championships in Austria.

The status of Mati Alaver as a kind of "Walter White"-type figure, all while he presided over one of Estonia's most successful ski eras of all time, seems to have been put beyond all doubt in a "Pealtnägija" episode which will air Wednesday night on ETV.

Andrus Veerpalu won olympic and world cross-country skiing medals in the 2000s; obtaining the court materials, about 50 percent of the total admitted at Harju County Court in their then-coach Alaver's hearing last last year, required a legal battle to obtain.

The "Pealtnägija" episode interviews state prosecutor Taavi Pern, who brought the case against Alaver, in depth.

"Yes," Pern told "Pealtnägija", with reference to the "general" moniker of Alaver's. "I can confirm [he was called] that."

The revelations follow information obtained from Mati Alaver's diary, and other sources obtained by the prosecutor's office following an investigation launched in March 2019, after several skiers from Estonia and other countries were detained on suspicion of engaging in ski doping after a police swoop at the February 2019 world skiing championships in Seefeld, Austria (a criminal investigation by that country's prosecutor's office into Alaver was wrapped up in December, though other cases remain ongoing- ed.).

Alaver also reportedly leaned on the benevolence of the ski team's doctor in providing blank prescriptions, though whether these were used to obtain illicit goods and services is not known. The team doctor in question received a fine of a few hundred euros.

Anti-doping expert Kristjan Port, an expert witness at Alaver's hearing in Estonia late last year, said the information Alaver had on ski doping read like a lexicon of banned substances in sport, adding that the hidden criminal world of sports doping – in which it transpired Alaver was something of a kingpin – never ceased to amaze him.

As to the nickname general, this derived from the fact that Alaver had a wide circle of contacts, and was an intimate of notorious German sports doping doctor, Mark Schmidt, who supplied all the necessary paraphernalia and whose own trial in Germany started this month.

"I can say that we accused Mati Alaver not only of inciting doping in Estonian athletes, but also of one Kazakh athlete - Alexei Poltoranin (whose trainer was Andrus Veerpalu - ed.). This already shows that he had a wider circle of contacts," Taavi Pern told "Pealtnägija".

Skiers Karel Tammjärv, 31, and Andreas Veerpalu, 26 were initially caught in the Seewald raid in late February 2019, code-named "Operation Bloodletting", with a third athlete, Algo Kärp, 35, later admitting to having used blood doping. All three were banned for four years by the International Ski Federation (FIS), the sport's international governing body.

Andrus Veerpalu, 49, Andreas' father, was also charged and received a four-year ban, as did head coach Mati Alaver, 66, along with Alexei Poltoranin, 33.

Alaver's trial in Estonia, Andrus Veerpalu in Austria

The prosecutor's office in Estonia sent the Alaver case to the courts last October, and in November, Harju County Court handed him a one-year suspended prison sentence, with an eighteen-month probation period

The hitherto classified materials from Alaver trial in Estonia last year were released earlier this week, shattering both his image and that of former Estonian ski star Andrus Veerpalu, who won olympic gold in Salt Lake City in 2002 and Turin in 2006 Pealtnägija reported.

Andrus Veerpalu. Source: ERR

"This process was was without doubt very interesting, and a particularly extraordinary case; it was certainly the fact that we had to deal with a person who has instructed Olympic winners," Taavi Pern said, adding that while he does not consider himself much of a sports fan, and had had little contact with Alaver in the past, from last spring, it dawned on him that he was dealing with an historical case.

Obtaining the classified files themselves required a lawsuit from public broadcaster ERR, along with private media company Ekspress Meedia, who obtained about half of the five-volume file on Monday after winning the case on the basis of public interest.

The findings also show that funds belonging to ski Team Haanja, set up in 2015 by skiers but which Alaver had involvement in, were used to pay for doping substances, and that Alaver had had repeated dealings with the team's biggest sponsor, construction magnate Toomas Annus. Annus did not want to speak to "Pealtnägija".

Estonian athletes cannot be prosecuted in Estonia because the use of doping substances and of cheating in sport is not covered by the penal code, however.

Andrus Veerpalu was charged with doping activities by Austria's prosecutor, a charge which Taavi Pern said was valid.

Evidence found in Alaver investigation damning

"I am well aware, yes, that the suspicion is still well founded and based on the evidence gathered," Pern said of the Veerpalu case.

Data on Alaver was obtained from a computer, emails, phones and a hard-copy, diary-like folder, Pern Said.

Lawyer Aivar Pilv, Alaver's counsel and who had successfully defended Andrus Veerpalu from the earlier charges of ski doping, was himself on vacation skiing as the events unfolded, but noted that the material found belonging to Alaver was damning.

Diary entries included sentences such as "run away", as the investigation began to unfold following the Seefeld swoop in February 2019, or "a new life begins", as well as a seeming awareness that he might be incriminating himsef - "halt all phone use," another entry read.

Just days later, in early March 2019, Alaver's home in Tartu was searched and he was detained.

Some effort had been made to destroy evidence, Taavi Pern said, noting that fragments of the paper diary had had to be retrieved from the fireplace.

"I can confirm, yes, that his thoughts were moving in the direction that the evidence should be destroyed. In fact, we also saw this in the notes he had in his diary. He had made notes that he should delete his messages and change the phone, so he really had taken action to that effect" Pern told "Pealtnägija".

Relations between Alaver and Schmidt

Emails revealed that doping activities in connection with Mark Schmidt, referred to as David Novak in Alaver's emails - an alias Schmidt gave himself in fact - who had previously been involved in supplying cyclists, were already in full swing from the fall of 2016. For instance, a meet to facilitate doping for three athletes took place on September 20 2016 in a room at a Novotel hotel close to Munich Airport.

Relations were warm, and face-to-face.

"The relationship was, in a sense, a customer-service relationship, but the relationship between that customer and the service provider was very good, very friendly and, so to speak, professional and trusting," Pern said.

Prices depended on substances and the status of the athlete, Pern went on, but sums were in the range of thousands of euros, and plans for deals continued into 2017 and beyond, right up until when they were caught in February 2019.

Schmidt also attended the 2018 Winter Olypics in South Korea to ply his trade.

Pern: Time limit to criminal investigation means we may never know full extent of doping activities

Andrus Veerpalu, who faced a strong groundswell of public support, with social media groups stating in their title that they "believed" him, was found not guilty of using illicit substances in 2013 when an earlier FIS decision was quashed by the Court of Arbitration for Sport; in the network uncovered after Seefeld, the charge became that he had been involved in aiding and abetting the use of doping practices.

Part of the issue is that Estonia's legal code does not provide for doping crimes, with the doping activities allegedly taking place in Veerpalu's hotel room at Seefeld.

"If there was a crime in Estonia known as doping, then the acts that Andrus Veerpal is accused of, according to public sources, would constitute aiding and abetting such a crime," Pern said.

"Meaning ... this help can't be just passive, there has to be some kind of active action"

Since the time limit for a criminal case is five years, in Alaver's case it is not clear whether ski doping techniques may not have been used at the peak of Estonia's skiing success, when Veerpalu won two olympic golds and two world golds.

Since Alaver became a ski coach way back in 1980, the activities could also have dated back to the Soviet era, "Pealtnägija" reported. Nonetheless, the time scale in focus only dates back to 2016.

Blood doping, the commonest activity covered in the case involves removing an athlete's red blood cells some time before a competition, and reintroducing these just before a competition, which has the effect of improving oxygen bearing capacity and general performance.

Naturally, care has to be taken to ensure the athlete gets his or her own blood back and that this is stored correctly; the blood also has to be removed again soon after a competition, to beat post-race tests.

This also involved conspiring, the use of pseudonyms, activities happening in different countries, Pern said.

Another telling piece of evidence was a pile of blank prescription forms, which had the stamp and signature of former team doctor Tarvo Kiduma.

Prosecutor: Team doctor alibi "nonsense"

Correspondence also showed how Alaver repeatedly asked for more of these blank forms from Dr. Kiudma. The latter said he acquiesced in case issues arose among team members when he was not present to prescribe something, a standard practise, Dr. Kiudma said.

Pern rejected this, however.

"I think such an explanation is nonsense," Pern told "Pealtnägija".

"None of us likely have a family doctor who is willing to just hand us blank prescription forms and say– 'here you are, go and buy the medicines you think you need and to the amount you want prescribed'," Pern said – noting that doctors have to keep meticulous medical records of what they prescribe and to whom.

Correspondence found did indeed reveal that Dr. Kiudma was not in Estonia, or at least said he was not, with Alaver then suggesting he use blank prescriptions, with his own (i.e. Alaver's) signature, which itself would also constitute a criminal offence, had evidence of that actually happening been found, Pern said.

"If we find prescriptions with a signature that was not written by Tarvo Kiudma, but by Mati Alaver, then we are talking about forgery of a document - we are talking about a crime. Unfortunately, we did not find such evidence of this in the procedure," Pern added.

Dr Kiudma, who is in private practice, says he does not believe that Alaver used the blank prescriptions to procure blood doping, though could not rule this out.

Kiudma was nonetheless fined €200 by the Health Board (Terviseamet) after the prosecutor's office informed it of Kiudma's irregularities in providing blank prescriptions.

Alaver lawyer: Revelations do not equate to an admission of guilt

As for Alaver himself, "Pealtnägija" claim that it had made sense that he fought to prevent the materials from the hearing to be made public, adding that their publication is not tantamount to an admission of guilt.

"The settlement procedure according to the current legislation does not require admitting his guilt or giving detailed statements about what happened, then in principle he has not provided more detailed explanations and he has certainly not pleaded guilty to the accusation and described actions," Pilv said.

Alaver himself, along with Andrus Veerpalu, and the three Estonia skiers caught up in the scandal – Karel Tammjärv, Algo Kärp and Andreas Veerpalu, did not wish to speak to "Pealtnägija".

Further hearings in other courts abroad into the case may also be on the horizon, Taavi Pern said.

As for the prognosis for ski doping, anti-doping expert Kristjan Port took a pessimistic line and said that perpetrators will always be found.

"For every crime, one side is the perpetrator, the other is the victim, and if we as victims do not learn anything, the perpetrators can continue to do so," he said.

"Since we didn't know anything beyond this story, but just impressions about phones call, we can't really learn anything from this long-term systematic harm to our own sport, both in terms of honesty and safety."

The "Pealtnägija" episode airs on Wednesday evening at 8.05 p.m. on ETV.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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