New ski doping case files: Tammjärv and Annus more involved than thought

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Mati Alaver in court. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

In September of 2020, it was revealed that the former national ski coach Mati Alaver was charged with facilitating banned blood doping and the use of illegal growth hormones for four skiers, three Estonians and one Kazakh. Alaver's activities took place from summer 2016, to February 26 2019 when he was detained by Austrian police, ERR News wrote.

Additional portions of court materials now published show that one of the Estonian skiers who cooperated with Alaver, Karel Tammjärv, along with major sponsor Toomas Annus, were more involved in the doping scandal than had been previously known to the public. The scheme itself was much more blatant than was known before, ETV's investigative show "Pealtnägija" reported Tuesday evening.

New evidence from the criminal case was published at the beginning of the week. The material comprises letters and messages between Karel Tammjärv and the infamous German doping doctor Mark Schmidt, recently jailed in his native country, which hadn't been published before.

Main facts

At the end of February in 2019, a scandal broke out at the Seefeld Ski Championships in Austria, after police detained five athletes on suspicion of receiving illegal blood transfusion for the purpose of enhancing performances, during the sting operation termed "Operation Bloodletting". Mark Schmidt and his accomplices' regular customers were, which came as a shock to many in Estonia, Mati Alaver, Karel Tammjärv, Andreas Veerpalu and Algo Kärp.

Since the network was international, the investigation was divided between the countries. Schmidt with his four assistants fell under German court supervision. The athletes, including the three Estonian skiers and Andrus Veerpalu (a two-time Olympic gold medalist in cross-country skiing) acting as his son's coach, went to court in Austria.

Mati Alaver came under Estonian court jurisidiction, charged with facilitating illegal blood doping.

Alaver's criminal case was the first to get to the finish line, when the fallen-from-grace coach accepted a plea deal in 2019, amounting to a year in suspended sentence. However, the court materials were all sealed (open versus closed court cases is a matter of ongoing controversy in Estonia - ed.). Public broadcaster ERR and investigative weekly Eesti Ekspress contested the sealing, and last summer, a portion, around half, of the case file was published. Eesti Ekspress continued to pursue the decision, which resulted in the court publishing another few hundred pages from the same case file.

Karel Tammjärv had an active role

The new materials shed light on other figures, primarily Karel Tammjärv, who acquired plus points with his confessions, but, actually, the messages, letters and confessions show, that in the organizational aspect, he was as much involved as Alaver.

"It can be seen from the new case files that Mati Alaver was the initiator of the doping-related conversations, but Karel Tammjärv was clearly an active part in practicing illegal blood doping," State Prosecutor, Taavi Pern told "Pealtnägija".

In the hundreds of pages, a surprisingly large-scale and idiosyncratic scam emerges. For example, the parties involved used amusing alias names.

Schmidt's alias was "David Novak", Alaver was called the "General" or "Coach", but some of the user names of his e-mails were "Roger Federer" or "Luca Modric". Karel Tammjärv mainly appeared under the name of "Prince Charles", Algo Kärp used the name "Max", Andreas Veerpalu was "Andrej" and the Kazakh team member Aleksei Poltoranin used the pseudonym "Einstein".

"Before sending the criminal case to the court and obtaining the materials, I read the book about Lance Armstrong's doping scheme and I had this deja vu feeling because the attempts at hiding and using aliases were the same in the Lance Armstong scheme," Pern said.

Today we know that the coach was lying when he only spoke about arranging contacts. First, only the blood doping - that is the practice of boosting the number of red blood cells in the bloodstream in order to enhance athletic performance - then it turned out that growth hormones, albumin and insulin, were used as well.

The first meetings with Schmidt took place at the end of the summer of 2016. At this point, Alaver was left out of the Estonian skiing world and was officially working with the Kazakh team; at the same time it can be seen how Alaver was secretly coaching Team Haanja in Estonia.

According to the correspondence, the board members of Team Haanja were Tammjärv and Kärp, but the finances were organized by Alaver and mainly from the development company Merko and its head Toomas Annus.

"To our knowledge, some of the money meant for Team Haanja was directly transferred to Tammjärv where he took the money out in cash and paid for the doping service," Pern said.

Tammjärv said at the interrogation: "The financial support was organized by Mati Alaver and I informed Alaver of the usage of the money. Mati Alaver had organized it in a way that I pay Mark Schmidt from my personal account and I also paid for Algo Kärp's and Andreas Veerpalu's parts."

The letters indicate that Alaver was coordinating the bigger picture and agreeing on the main directions, but the Tammjärv is responsible for organizing the actual use of doping and paying for it.

Tammjärv said that the first season cost €4,000-€6,000, going further €8,000 and in the year of the Pyeongchang Olympics, €10,000 per athlete.

Formally, the head coach of Team Haanja was Anti Saarepuu, who claimed he didn't know anything about the doping schemes.

Toomas Annus is militant

All the main characters - Tammjärv, Kärp, Veerpalu and Alaver - are refusing to pass comment.

The major sponsor is even somewhat militant: "Please don't call me. I don't even want to know what the topic is. Never call me from this show! Why? Ask Kärmas (host of the show-ed.). While people like him work there, don't call me. These are not honest people," Annus told researchers for the show.

In his messages, Annus confirms that he didn't know the sponsor money was used for doping activity.

"I didn't know then and don't know now how much money it was and where it went. I think none of the sponsors knew," Annus said.

All parties, who weren't directly accused, state that they don't know anything about the schemes, which considering all aspects, sound surprising.

In 2011 for example, it was found that the doctor who left the Estonian team, Tarvo Kiudmaa, issued blank prescription forms to Alaver.

Kiudma believed that Alaver was buying permitted vitamins and restoratives from abroad.

"Karel Tammjärv and Mati Alaver were working together in some sense. When in Estonia, we managed to prosecute Alaver for facilitating the usage of doping, but the materials in our hands indicated Karel Tammjärv's role in facilitating the usage as well," Pern said.

Often, the athletes had problems with catching up with Schmidt, or the doping didn't work as it was meant to. In June 2017, Schmidt writes the following about a powder:" Something is wrong with it!!! There are two possibilities, either customs added something to it and a reaction occurred, or it was stored wrongly. But it doesn't work anymore... I apologize for the failure last season!".

Andrus Veerpalu's role

What is stranger still, "Pealtnägija" reported, is that even though Tammjärv, Kärp and Veerpalu had health problems this season, there were lots of issues with organizing everything and there wasn't significant growth, they all continue with doping.

The last communications come from the Seefeld World Ski Championships. Tammjärv on February 19: "'Andrej's coach thinks it's okay to do one tomorrow night and two on Saturday. Isn't it too much in a short time? Can the body handle it?" The wording indicates that Andrus Veerpalu is considered the coach.

The matter becomes even clearer on the evening of February 26, when it is discussed whether Andreas should engage in doping the same evening or the next morning. When Schmidt says it doesn't matter, Tammjärv writes, "Ah, that was his father's concern. 'Andrej' himself says it's OK, considering how much time there is before the start. So tomorrow at 9 a.m. for both of us."

The materials also include letters in which Tammjärv passes on to Schmidt the decisions made in connection with Andreas Veerpalu; Tammjärv assures Schmidt that Andreas Veerpalu does not decide about the use of blood doping himself, but with his coach. Both as was publicly known and as mentioned in the correspondence, Andreas Veerpalu was coached by his father, Andrus Veerpalu.

"In my opinion, there is no reason to just ask whether the father knowingly let his son engage in doping, but rather why the father himself participated in possible doping," Pern said.

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Editor: Roberta Vaino

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