Olympic chief disappointed in Alaver, Veerpalu senior

Urmas Sõõrumaa speaking to ERR in Tallinn's Rotermann quarter on Friday.
Urmas Sõõrumaa speaking to ERR in Tallinn's Rotermann quarter on Friday. Source: ERR

President of the Estonian Olympic Committee (EOK) Urmas Sõõrumaa has spoken of his shock and confusion after the ski doping scandal broke in the latter half of the week.

Having seemingly spoken in support of Estonian ski union chief Mati Alaver as recently as Friday morning, Alaver's own admission that he had facilitated a meeting between an alleged doping supplier, Mark Schmidt, from Germany, and one of the accused skiers, Karel Tammjärv, has been an obvious game changer for Mr Sõõrumaa.

Alaver has now stepped down from the EOK, which he was also a member of, and Mr Sõõrumaa has also had to modify his opinion of Andrus Veeraplu, father of the other accused Estonian skier, Andreas, and previously cleared (with some reservations) of doping infractions by a court in 2013.

''It is a little strange to say that I praised anyone. I simply stated a willingess to help. I retain the same stance I had all along, only that now it is clear that our athletes have engaged in doping activities and been dishonest to their fellow sportspeople,'' Mr Sõõrumaa told ERR on Friday.

Still somewhat unbelievable

''Everything now has to be dealt with by the respective legal authorities and the resultant penalties followed,'' he added.

''It is honestly a little bit unbelievable, at the moment, trying to get the facts straight in my head, because I had hithertoo thought of Mati Alaver as a straightforward and active man. So this has been a shock for all of us. However, as a good friend of mine is wont to say, God is fair, but unfortunately also slow. Sometimes things happen quicker, sometimes more slowly,'' Mr Sõõrumaa went on.

Tammjärv stated at a press conference in Austria, where he had been competing in the world championships until the police swoop and his susbequent detention on Wednesday, that Alaver had set him up with Mark Schmidt. Alaver subsequently admitted this was the case and expressed his regrets and apologies. In addition to leaving the EOK, there is a good chance Alaver will be stripped of state awards, as well as having to leave the Reform Party, of which he is a member.

Whither Anti Saarepuu?

As regards trainer Anti Saarepuu, who appeared alongside Karel Tammjärv at Friday's press conference and to whom Tammjärv and Andreas Veerpalu first confessed their involvement in doping activities, Mr Sõõrumaa said that his future status was down to the ski union.

Mr Saarepuu has maintained he was in the dark about the dealings until the story broke. Veerpalu father and son have effectively gone AWOL as of Friday, and did not appear at the press conference.

''I am glad for Karel Tammjärv; this kind of sincere communication and surrender of the soul is definitely better both for him and for everyone else, and those who hide it in their own souls will have a harder time,'' said Mr Sõõrumaa, of the markedly different approaches taken by the accused skiers after being released from Austrian police custody on Thursday evening.

Skiers with feet of clay

Of Andrus Veerpalu, Mr Sõõrumaa said that this was something that ''...touches every Estonian soul, and calls for recognition that people still do thinngs which are harmful to themselves and others, and are not as strong as we would like''.

Questions around Andres Veerpalu's own doping allegations, which he was cleared of by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), an international quasi-judicial body established to settle disputes related to sport through arbitration, in 2013, can also be addressed by the EOK soon (it is set to convene on 5 March) as can Veerpalu's continued status as an olympian (the state grants stipends to all living Olympic medallists).

When asked what the wider damage to Estonian skiing and sport in general would be, Mr Sõõrumaa said that this should not be significant in the long term, since doping controls and other aspects of organisation in Estonian sport were transparent, honest and comprehensive.

''Sinners are found in all walks of life, something we often miss. Naturally skiiing, the jewel in the crown of Estonian sport, has been in a parlous state for a long time now. It's going to be even harder now on the world stage,'' he added.

''It is a bit disappointing to see things like this happening with men like Mati Alaver and Andrus Veerpalu. Yes, athletes will be athletes, and as a result, their school education can often be somewhat incomplete and so on; I know a lot about this line of thought. But I have always found Mati to be a principled man of his word. But again, where this situation we were in years ago has returned – let's say that anything that is possible to happen, can happen,'' mr Sõõrumaa added.

Urmas Sõõrumaa has been EOK chief since 2016.

Criminalisation of doping

Culture minister Indrek Saar (SDE), under whose auspices Estonian sports falls, has touted making doping a criminal activity.

"I consider it vital to discuss the situation with representatives of all relevant institutions. We will meet at the Ministry of Culture as early as next week, to have a frank talk about the matter," Mr Saar said on Friday.

"The question will definitely arise as to whether we should make the rules tougher still, and criminalise the use of doping in Estonia as well," he added.

With a general election on Sunday it is not clear whether Mr Saar will be culture minister for much longer, however.

Additionally, the type and status of doping substances used in the current case is not completely clear. In the case of Andrus Veerpalu from 2011-2013, at stake was not whether he had used an illegal growth hormone, but rather whether he had used something legitimate, but broken the rules in the quantities taken. Part of Mr Veerpalu's defence then rested on the claim that an unusual genetic makeup meant that levels of growth hormone found in his blood on testing, particularly after exertion, could be as much as 100 times those of other athletes.

Editor: Andrew Whyte

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