Ski doping allegations reveal web of interests, links to earlier cases
Following the announcement that two Estonian skiers, Andreas Veerapalu and Karel Tammjärv, effectively admitted their guilt in doping activities during the International Ski Federation (FIS) Nordic World Ski Championships at Seefeld in Tirol, Austria, on Thursday evening, ETV's Aktuaalne kaamera took a look at the links between the men, their trainers and related personnel, and three other skiers from Austria and Kazakhstan, who were detained at the same time.
On Wednesday, Austrian police arrested a reported nine people on doping suspicions, including five skiers participating in the championships. As a result, the skiers were unable to start the men's 15-km race taking place that afternoon.
As well as Veerpalu, 24, and Tammjärv, 29, two Austrian skiers, Max Hauke, and Dominik Baldauf, and Kzakh skier Alexey Poltoranin, were detained, though released ahead of the Estonian skiers. Hauke and Baldauf have both officially admitted their guilt, according to the prosecutor in Innsbruck, as reported by Austrian regional daily Kleine Zeitung.
Andreas Veerpalu. Source: ERR
Kazakh sports and culture minister Serik Sapijev had expressed on Thursday certainty that Poltoranin was clean of any doping offences, daily Postimees reports. However, Poltoranin does have a strong connection with the other skiers, in particular the two Estonians, as we will see.
At the heart of the scandal, as reported by ERR's Tarmo Tiisler on the Aktuaalne kaamera broadcast on Thursday evening, is one Dr Mark Schmidt, who was arrested in Germany at the same time as the skiers were picked up. Schmidt, a German national, has been referred to as the ''doping doctor'', and is suspected of having been involved in doping activities, most notably with Tour de France cyclists over around a 10-year period.
However, there are additional links between the Estonian skiers and Poltoranin. Both men are members of Team Haanja, which has been at loggerheads with Estonia's ski union throughout its existence, the report said. This principally revolves around team financing and the question of the team members representing Estonia in competitions.
Mati Alaver, trainer and head of the Estonian Skiing Union. Source: Karli Saul/Scanpix
The Estonian ski union itself had suspended Mati Alaver as head coach of the national team in 2011 following an earlier doping case (see below) revolving around skiier Andrus Veerpalu, father of Andreas. Mr Alaver was subsequently reinstated.
Andrus Veerpalu, Mati Alaver, at centre of web
Poltoranin, the Kazakh skier detained at the same time as the two Estonians, skis for the Pro Ski Team Altai outfit, which also has links with Team Haanja, according to the report, not least via Andrus Veerpalu, who has worked for several years as an adviser to Poltoranin and the Pro Ski team.
Moreover, Mati Alaver worked as a trainer for Poltoranin, having trained Karel Tammjärv, and Team Haanja coach Anti Saarepuu, the very coach to whom Andreas Veerpalu and Karel Tammjärv reportedly confessed their culpability on Thursday.
Andrus Veerpalu. Source: ERR
Two other names mentioned in the Aktuaalne kaamera report are Jaan Alvela, who has worked for both Team Haanja and the Kazakh Altai team, and Toomas Annus, majority owner of the Merko construction company, Team Haanja's sponsor.
At the centre of the web remains Andrus Veerpalu, who as we have seen maintained strong ties with all three skiers, Tammjärv, Poltarnin and, unsurprisingly, his son, Andreas, as well as both teams. The original report (in Estonian) is here, but let's take a look at a timeline of events surrounding Andrus Veerpalu's earlier doping case, as well as scrutiny of another ski star, Kristina Šmigun-Vähi, who is running for the Reform Party in Sunday's general election.
Timeline of events
February: Andrus Veerpalu, three-time Olympic medallist, announces his retirement from the sport on the eve of the world championships in Holmenkollen, Norway. The formal reason given is a chronic knee injury.
Reports surface that a recent World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) doping test on Veerpalu may have proved positive.
April: Andrus Veerpalu is confirmed as having been tested over the permitted limit for growth hormones (HGH). In other words the substance(s) themselves are not banned, but use is limited and Veerpalu now stands accused of having violated said limits.
Questions soon arise as to the effectiveness of such testing; the method use came into being the previous year, with earlier methods already having been deemed inadequate.
Social media groups in support of Andrus Veerpalu soon spring up. One of the biggest, ''We believe Andrus Veerpalu'' (Estonian: Usume Andrus Veerpalu) rapidly garners thousands of supporters, and still had around 48,000 ''likes'' at the time of writing. At its peak, the page reportedly boasted over 60,000 such acclamations. A social media group stating the reverse (Estonian: ''Ei usu Andrus Veerpalu) had a mere 16 ''likes'' at the time of writing.
Psychologist Tõnu Lehtsaar suggests ''Veerpalu-mania'' has reached an almost religious fervour.
Toomas Savi suspends himself as vice president position of the Estonian Olympic Committee until the International Ski Federation (FIS) has delivered its verdict on the case.
Erki Nool, a former decathlete and Olympic Gold medallist, states that of over 40,000 doping samples taken per year in Europe, about 1% return as positive.
Andrus Veerpalu scheduled to stand before an FIS panel in Slovenia in June, Estonian organisations are granted an extension to assembling their case, ahead of the inquiry, to late May.
June 2011: After some discussion of whether Andrus Veerpalu will appear in person before the FIS, he testifies by video link.
August 2011: FIS rules that the Veerpalu doping test and its result will stand. Almost immediately, objections to WADA methodologies arise. These include a claim from researcher Anton Terasmaa that Veerpalu has a rare genetic mutation which causes growth hormone levels to spike at an unusual level after exertion. "It became evident that while other skiers had a tenfold rise in the level of growth hormone, in Veerpalu it was a hundredfold,'' a team of 12 Tartu scientists who had sequenced Veerpalu's DNA, in tests taken after a workout in April and May, states.
Toomas Savi (see above) dismisses suggestions that he wanted to cover up Veerpalu's positive doping test results.
September 2011: It is announced that Andrus Veerpalu's case will be taken to 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.
Otepää, Estonia's winter sports capital, is left out of the skiing world cup competition calendar for 2013, ostensibly because the country's two top skiers, Veerpalu and Kristina Šmigun-Vähi, have both retired.
October 2011: Secretary-General of the Estonian skiing union steps down from his role and Mati Alaver (see above) is suspended as head coach pending the CAS outcome.
November 2011: Finnish skier Juha Lallukka is banned for two years from the sport after testing positive for HGH.
April: Andrus Veerpalu is stripped of the state stipend given to all living olympic champions. This is later reinstated.
June: Veerpalu appears at the CAS hearing over several days.
The CAS decision is delayed first to September, then is further delayed to the following year.
February: The CAS decision is put back further, to March.
March: A team of Estonian Ph.D.s led by Sulev Kõks, at the University of Tartu, disclose the findings of an 18-month study which they said categorically shows that the WADA tests are unreliable. Questions are raised in some quarters in Estonia as to the independence of the investigation.
On 26 March, the CAS overturns the FIS dope test findings, though qualifies this by stating the skier probably broke the rules
Overseas support includes that from an NFL American football player's union, which states that anti-doping test methodologies are unreliable. Doping specialist Don Catlin of the US said that WADA must learn from its mistakes in the Veerpalu case.
Moves are made to reinstate Mati Alaver as ski association head coach.
April 2013: Sulev Kõks turns down offer to head up Estonia's anti-doping organisation.
November 2013: Andrus Veerpalu takes on a role as advisor to Kazakh skier Alexey Poltoranin, one of five skiers detained on Wednesday in Austria.
December 2013: Veerpalu's clearing by the CAS is shortlisted by ERR as one of the sports events of the year, though this is later dropped from the list.
Alexey Poltoranin. Source:SIPA/Scanpix
January: It is reported that updated WADA methodologies would have found Veerpalu guilty of HDH infringements, had they been in use in February 2011.
The new HDH B-test limits are set at 1.81 and 1.87, and are set more in stone than the earlier respective figures of 1.81 and 1.68 (Veerpalu's own figures, identified as Kit1 and Kit2, were reportedly 2.62 and 3.07 for Sample A and 2.73 and 2.00 for Sample B). B-samples have generally been taken at separate intervals and are often recoursed to a long time after (in the case of Kristina Šmigun-Vähi, see below, many years after) they were taken.
February: WADA declares the Veerpalu case closed, but that Estonian governing bodies could conduct their own investigations.
Meanwhile another star Estonian skier, Kristina Šmigun-Vähi, who also clinched three Olympic medals in her career, comes under similar scrutiny revolving around her Gold at the 2006 Turin Winter Olympics.
April: Kristina Šmigun-Vähi takes her case to the CAS, which nixes a possible backup test.
August: Kristjan Port, board member of the Estonian Anti-Doping Agency, said the next global doping scandal could erupt in swimming, after skiing, cycling and athletics. The previous year, an unnamed Tartu doctor claimed they had supplied many Estonian athletes with performance enhancing drugs. A report on the case was largely inconclusive.
Kristina Šmigun-Vähi. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR
October: Reports on the Šmigun-Vähi hearing state it is imminent, though information is rather vague, including, it is reported, that carried on the CAS' own website.
June: Invego, a real estate company headed by Kristina Šmigun-Vähi's husband, Kristjan-Thor Vähi, expresses interest in purchasing the Centre Party's former office building on Toompea.
November: Kristina Šmigun-Vähi announces she is running for the Reform Party at the March 2019 general election.
Wednesday, February 27: Two Estonian skiers, Karel Tammjärv and Andreas Veerpalu, son of Andrus, are held by Austrian police, together with skiers Alexey Poltoranin of Kazakhstan, Dominik Baldauf and Max Hauke of Austria, and several others. The swoop follows what the Austrian police say has been years of surveillance, as well as meets between the detained, and organised criminals supplying performance-enhancing materials, notwithstanding legal limits imposed on HGH blood levels as noted above.
The skiers had been participating in the International Ski Federation (FIS) Nordic World Ski Championships at Seefeld in Tirol, Austria, and miss the 15-km men's classic race as a result of being detained. Those detained in can initially be held for 48 hours, Austrian police say.
Estonian ski authorities are initially muted, later saying it is a black day for the country and that full investigations are needed.
Mark Schmidt is arrested in Erfurt, Germany.
Thursday, February 28: Veerpalu and Tammjärv are released, somewhat after the other skiers, and reportedly confess to their team that there is substance to the Austrian police claims.
Friday, March 1: Merko Ehitus and Kapitel Eesti say they will withdraw sponsorship of Team Haanja if the skiers are found guilty of doping, with other sponsors likely to follow suit.
Karel Tammjärv appears in a press conference together with coach Anti Saarepuu, admitting he had been ''doping'' since 2016, after being introduced to ''a German doctor'' by Mati Alaver (see above). Tammjärv adds that both the Veerpalus, who did not appear at the conference and were said to have slipped out of their Seefeld hotel earlier, were fully aware of the activities.
Anti Saarepuu expresses his shock at the athletes' confessions, plus displeasure at the Veerpalu father and son's leaving their hotel without informing him.
Mati Alaver issues a statement admitting, and expressing regret for, mediating between Kaarel Tammjärv and Mark Schmidt in doping activities
Naturally, as well as changes to doping testing methologies since 2011, a big difference between this latest case and the earlier ones surrounding Andrus Veerpalu and Kristina Šmigun-Vähi is that whereas the latters' accusations came after blood tests which could and have been argued to be flawed and inaccurate, Tammjärv and Veerpalu junior were reportedly caught either in the act (one of the Austrian skiers was found by police while he still had a needle administering doping substances, it is reported) or with incriminating paraphernalia and/or meeting Mark Schmidt at the time of the competition.
The case is ongoing. The ski championships themselves run until Sunday 3 March.
Editor: Andrew Whyte