Two Estonian skiers are amongst several people being detained by Austrian police, on suspicion of doping.
The two athletes, Karel Tammjärv (29) and Andreas Veerpalu (24), were participating in the International Ski Federation (FIS) Nordic World Ski Championships at Seefeld in Tirol, Austria. Two Austrian skiers and one Kazakh skier are also currently being detained, along with four other non-skiers, in connection with the suspicions.
The two men did not start the 15km men's classical race on Wednesday afternoon, as a result of the investigations.
The suspicions of doping, a criminal offence under Austrian law, means the men will be detained for 48 hours, it is reported, after which the prosecutor will decide what to do next.
Austrian police said that the detentions were the result of an ongoing investigation, including surveillance, of suspected doping activities which were connected with organised crime.
"The investigation has been going on for a long time. We had information that the criminal gang's boss was coming to the Seefeld World Championships to meet some athletes, so we decided to act now,'' said Austrian police chief Dieter Csefan at a press conference on Wednesday afternoon.
The nationalities of the detained men was confirmed at the press conference, though no names were mentioned, it is reported.
Organised crime ring had been under surveillance
''We had been monitoring suspects during the World Cup, round-the-clock, and we saw these five athletes on a regular basis with organised criminal groups, both before and during World Cup," Mr Csefan said, adding that a total of 120 people were involved in investigations and seizures, and 16 locations had been searched.
The crime ring had been active for several years, he said.
According to Austrian daily Kronen Zeitung, the suspected Austrians are Dominik Baldauf and Max Hauke
The Estonian Ski Association was contacted by ERR for comment. Initially, Secretary-General of the association Tõnu Seil had no comment on the matter, a stance reiterated by a ski association press release.
The association said it receives its information from the FIS, which in turn cooperates with the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).
However, later, the organisation's president, Andreas Laane, said that whilst he didn't really know anything more than what had come to public attention via the media, it was a bad day for Estonian skiing.
''Against this background, as president of the ski association, I can assure you that it is in our interests to find out the truth as quickly as possible and also to have a very clear and resolute response to the solutions, and to make the relevant decisions,'' Mr Laane told ERR.
Andreas Veerpalu is the son of former Estonian cross-country skiier Andrus Veerpalu, who himself was at the centre of a doping scandal in 2011, shortly after retiring from the sport. Veerpalu senior, however, was acquitted of the charges in 2013 by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), an international quasi-judicial body established to settle disputes related to sport through arbitration, headquartered in Lausanne, Switzerland.
Kristina Šmigun-Vähi, who ties with Andrus Veerpalu as most successful Estonian cross-country, or Nordic, skiier, in terms of Olympic medals (2 Golds and 1 Silver each), was also investigated for doping after the 2006 Turin Winter Olympics. Whilst Ms Šmigun-Vähi faced a CAS hearing herself, in late 2016, no subsequent developments have been reported. Ms Šmigun-Vähi is running for the Reform Party in the Kesklinn, Lasnamäe and Pirita district of Tallinn.
The case of the nine people detained on Wednesday, including Veerpalu junior and Tammjärv, is ongoing.
The 41st FIS Nordic World Ski Championships run from 20 February to 3 March 2019.
Editor: Andrew Whyte