Ski coaches see lack of snow as larger problem than doping

Tartu Ski Marathon 2016.
Tartu Ski Marathon 2016. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

The unveiling of legendary ski coach Mati Alaver's criminal file over the last week raised discussion if most Estonian skiing achievements had been reached with the help of illegal measures and if Estonian skiing even has a future.

Tanel Ojaste, member of the Estonian Ski Association and ski coach, told ERR: "Right now, the negative image around our sport definitely sets a shadow on our young future athletes, perhaps even their great results, achieved over the last two-three years. I would say our young skiiers' results internationally have been the best of the last ten years."

Ojaste continued: "Johanna Udras was fifth at the Youth Olympics Games, Martin Himma was 15th at the under-23 world championships. A couple of seasons ago, Henri Roos was 14th at the Juniors' world championships. Mariel Merlii Pulles got the best result of all when she was in the top-30 at the World Ski Championships at Seefeld (where Estonian skiers were caught blood doping - ed.). This shows that we have done great work regardless. I think Estonian skiing is not dead."

Ojaste said you can not change the past which is why it is important to move forward. He said cross-country skiing has gone through a restart in Estonia and the negative coverage of the sport over the last week did not change much. Ojaste sees a lack of snow as the biggest problem facing skiing, not doping. But how should parents looking for a training group for their children think of the sport?

Sports psychologist Aave Hannus, who has formerly worked with Alaver's coached athletes, said there is no prediction for how parents will act going forward. "I believe it will affect many parents. People will feel it and for those who fair play is valuable and who might be scared for their child's health, might make that decision," she said.

Hannus continued: "The level of doping use is different for each sport. Scientists are largely in agreement that everyone is not using doping. And estimatedly, if we combine different research methods, we can think that some percentage points up to 30 actually use doping. This stance or belief that everyone is doping is just not true."

Looking at a vision for the future of Estonian skiing, perhaps eyes could go on Finland, as most of their national team leaders were caught doping at the 2001 world championships. Their ski coach at the time, Kari-Pekka Kyrö, took responsibility for the action. Kyrö has all but completely been rehabilitated in society's eyes now.

Jari Pottila, long-time Finnish sports journalist and skiier Jari Isometsä wrote a book on the Lahti doping scandal. Porttilla said the cleansing process could take four to five years.

He explained: "Investigations have been powerful after Lahti. They have not stopped at removing abusers from competitions, they have tried to develop a baseline for Finnish athletes to not even consider using. That could be the path that Estonia chooses. Doping should be fought at grassroots level: the coaches who have doping at the ready should not be involved in sports. Sports should be cleaned on the youth level in a way that would create conviction that success comes through training and not cheating."

Ojaste added: "Lahti was in 2001, next year will be 20 years. I believe we will look back on our case in 20 years a little differently as well. It is all new right now and as long as people are interested in reading the news, inevitably it will be in our media at times."

Estonian sports does not have much experience in how to accept athletes and coaches who have been punished. Perhaps skiing could use the knowledge and experience these specialists hold at some point? How can forgiveness happen and is there a place for these people?

Hannus said: "I think there is a place for them. The size of the place depends on the people. They have to create that place for themselves if they wish to return. The place will certainly not welcome them, saying: 'please come back and be this honorable person.' I think that is not how it will go."

Porttilla added: "If you have been caught at least once, you have been stamped and you must consider the constant rain of questions. I guess everyone thinks about if it is possible that someone can achieve better results clean than while doping. If it is possible, it is a fantastic signal to the world. But I am skeptical."

Ojaste concluded: "I agree that it would be more simple to say everything at once to clear the air, start off on a blank slate, but forgiveness is something that depends on the person. Estonia is small and it is complicated here, but I can not say it is impossible."

Ski coach Mati Alaver "the general" of an international doping fraternity

Alaver's nickname within the illicit blood doping ring had been "the general", and he also used the pseudonym "Roger Federer" in communications.

Among other things, Alaver arranged a mystery package drop in 2017 at Tallinn Airport. He was charged with facilitating banned blood doping and the use of illegal growth hormones for four skiers, Estonians Karel Tammjärv, Andreas Veerpalu and Algo Kärp, along with Kazakh skier Alexei Poltaranin, coached jointly by Alaver and former double olympic gold medalist Andrus Veerpalu.

Former ski star, two-time olympic gold medalist and two-time world champ Andrus Veerpalu was also involved in the ring, providing blood doping to his son, Andreas, who was caught in a probe in Austria at the world championships in 2019.

Blood doping is somewhat of a misleading term; the practise involves removing a quantity of blood from an athlete ahead of a competition, only to transfuse it back into their system just before a race, with the intention of this giving them a performance boost due to enhanced oxygen-bearing capacity the new blood brings.

The blood must be stored carefully at a low temperature, activities which Alaver, Schmidt and Andrus Veerpalu were all allegedly involved in.

The "extra" blood must often be re-drawn after a competition, to dodge the suspicions of authorities conducting blood tests post-race.

The practise when new - the first known case involved a Finnish middle-distance runner at the 1980 Moscow Olympics, the same year Mati Alaver became a ski coach - was not illegal but has been declared as such since then.

Alaver, Schmidt, Veerpalu et al were well aware of its illegal status, hence the efforts taken to avoid detection.

Growth hormones are generally legal, but their use in sports is generally not.


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Editor: Kristjan Kallaste

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