Ski chief on doping mediation: The biggest mistake of my life

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Mati Alaver.
Mati Alaver. Source: Karli Saul/Scanpix

Ski trainer and head of Estonia's skiing union Mati Alaver has taken full responsibility for facilitating doping supplies for skiier Karel Tammjärv.

Tammjärv, 29, along with fellow Estonian skiier Andreas Veerpalu, were arrested on Wednesday after an Austrian police swoop in Seefeld, where they were taking part in the Nordic World Ski Championships and were due to start a race that day. Two Austrian skiers and a Kazakh skier who has strong ties with the Estonian team were also detained.

After being released on Thursday evening, Andreas Veerpalu, and his father, former ski champ Andrus, were nowhere to be seen, but Kaarel Tammjärv faced the music at a press conference on Friday morning, together with trainer Anti Saarepuu.

At the press conference, Tammjärv said that Alaver had put him in touch with Mark Schmidt, an alleged long-term supplier of doping substances, principally on the Tour de France cycling circuit.

Neither of the Veerpalus were in attendance, and are reported to have left their hotel.

Mati Alaver leaving his home in Tartu on Friday morning, without speaking to reporters. He later made a statement expressing his regrets about introducing Kaarel Tammjärv to Mark Schmidt. Source: ERR

Following the press conference, Alaver said that his actions in putting Tammjärv and Schmidt in touch, which Tammjärv said first happened in 2016, had been the biggest mistake of his life.

''I hereby state that I did mediate in Kaarel Tammjärv's contact with German sports doctor Mark Schmidt in 2016,'' said Alaver in a statement.

''This has been the biggest mistake of my life, and I sincerely regret it. I apologise to the athletes and their families, to the Estonian skiing community and to the sporting public. There is no justification for my actions,'' he went on.

May lose state decorations, party membership

Meanwhile, Alaver is likely to be both stripped of state decorations he has been awarded, as well as being expelled from the Reform Party, which he has been a member of since 2001.

"Today [Friday] it was revealed that he has violated the rules of fair sport. This is not acceptable to us. The board of the party branch that he is a member of is to make a proposal to the overall party board to expel him," secretary general of the Reform Party  Erkki Keldo told ERR.

Alaver was not running for parliament in Sunday's general election, nor was he a former MP or otherwise prominent or active member, it is reported.

What he had received was the Order of the White Star, 3rd Class, as well as Order of the Red Cross, 4th Class, both state decorations only awarded annually by the president of the Estonian republic.

Alaver was awarded the Order of the White Star after Andrus Veerpalu, who as noted Alaver had trained, won his second Olympic Gold, at the Turin games in 2006. Veerpalu himself received the same award, 1st class, after the win. Alaver had been gifted the Order of the Red Cross in 2001. Both awards were distributed by former president Arnold Rüütel, who gifted a far greater number of state awards than either of his successors, Toomas Hendrik Ilves and Kersti Kaljulaid.

"When the unworthy acts of a recipient of state decorations are confirmed ‒ and Mati Alaver indeed admitted to it today ‒ the head of state will initiate the withdrawal of the decorations,'' Taavi Linnamäe, presidential advisor, told daily Postimees on Friday.

However, ultimately it is down to President Kersti Kaljulaid whether to strip Alaver of his decorations.

''The head of state is on a visit abroad at the moment [in Košice, Slovakia-ed.] but on her return she will get familiar with the circumstances and will make the decision on Monday," Mr Linnamäe continued.

Alaver has also resigned from the Estonian Olympic Committee, it is reported.

Reform Party stars reaction

Reform Party European Commissioner and former prime minister, Andrus Ansip, said that he found the whole saga frustrating, when contacted for comment by ERR on Friday, but that he was too busy to comment further.

Mr Ansip is reportedly a good friend of Alaver, and for long spoke in support of Andrus Veerpalu, whose own doping woes occurred during Ansip's watch as premier.

Kristina Šmigun-Vähi, a former top Estonian skier and three-time Olympic medallist, who is running for Reform in the Central Tallinn-Lasnamäe-Pirita district and ought to be a shoo-in at the election on Sunday, similarly described the story as ''embarrassing''.

''We should all be concerned first and foremost with ensuring today's youngsters do not get disillusioned with sports. That's what makes my heart ache the most," Ms Šmigun-Vähi, who herself faced doping allegations in the wake of the Andrus Veerpalu case and surrounding her 2006 Turin Olympics Gold medal win, told ERR on Friday.

Police swoop

This is not the first time Alaver, 65, has face controversy surrounding doping in skiing. In 2011, after three-time olympic medal winner Andrus Veerpalu, father of Andreas, was tested positive for excessive growth hormones (HGH) in his blood, Alaver was suspended from his role as ski union chief. He was reinstated in 2013, after Veerpalu senior was cleared by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), an international quasi-judicial body established to settle disputes related to sport through arbitration. The court did note however that it thought Veerpalu had broken the rules.

The exact nature of the substances involved in Wednesday's swoop have not been made clear. If they are the same type of HGF substances, rule changes since 2011 and testing procederes by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) have tightened limits on volumes permissible. Criticisms of the earlier procedures are largely what got Andrus Veerpalu off his charges.

In any case, the five skiers were detained following surveillance of organised criminal groups, presumably connected with Mark Schmidt (who was also arrested in Erfurt, Germany) and not as a result of blood tests.

The Kazakh skier, Alexey Poltoranin, has links with both Alaver and Andrus Veerpalu; the latter started working as an adviser to Poltoranin and his team in 2013; Alaver has acted as trainer to both the Estonian and Kazakh skiers detained on Wednesday, as well as the older Veerpalu.

Editor: Andrew Whyte

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