THE BIG PICTURE: Estonian skier admits to doping for years

Estonian Cross Country ski coach Anti Saarepuu and admitted doper Karel Tammjarv

The stunning arrests of five Cross Country skiers at the FIS Nordic World Championships in Seefeld (AUT) for doping has provided a clear signal that doping is hardly a thing of the past.

On Friday, the identities of all five skiers became known and led to a statement from the Estonian Ski Association:

“The Estonian Ski Association regrettably has to admit that Estonian skiers [Karel] Tammjarv and [Andreas] Veerpalu have confirmed to their coach Anti Saarepuu that they have been doping. There is no justification whatsoever for doping.”

In addition to the Estonians, Austrians Dominik Baldauf and Max Hauke were arrested, as was Kazakh skier Alexey Poltoranin.

The Estonian federation went to come pains to point out that Tammjarv and Veerpalu were not being coached by the federation, but were part of a separate team called Team Haanja. The President of the Estonian Ski Association, Andreas Laane, pointed out in his statement that “Team Haanja as well as Poltoranin’s own team are connected with Estonian skiing coaches Mati Alaver and Andrus Veerpalu. Both men have been Alexey Poltoranin’s coaches for a long time.”

Andrus Veerpalu, the father of Andreas Veerpalu, was himself found to be doping after he retired from the sport in 2011, but was acquitted due to statute of limitations concerns.

Tammjarv gave a news conference on Friday, explaining that he had been blood-doping since 2016 and was introduced to German physician Mark Schmidt – who was also arrested – for the procedures. Schmidt has been linked to doping issues involving cyclists at the Tour de France.

He explained that he paid for the doping treatments himself and that he and Veerpalu had to “live apart” from the other members of the Estonian team in order to cover the time away for doping. “I had smaller and bigger lies about why I needed to be somewhere else,” he said.

FIS has provisionally suspended all five skiers, as of Friday.

Poltoranin was by far the most decorated of the skiers involved, having won twp bronze medals in the 2013 World Championships, in the Team Sprint and the 50 km Mass Start. A three-time Olympian in 2010-14-18, he has 12 World Cup wins, including three in the 2017-18 season after not earning a medal since January of 2016.

Tammjarv was 27th in the Skiathlon in Seefeld and had never placed higher than 26th in the Worlds, and had no World Cup medals in his career. Veerpalu had a best of 36th at the World Championships and also had no career World Cup medals.

But both were on the Estonian ski team and that brought rewards of its own, as well as outside sponsorship for themselves and their Team Haanja.

Much of the anti-doping focus has been on assuring the cleanliness of medal winners, but these arrests show that doping can be a resource for athletes who are not world-beaters, but who are trying to make a living at their sport by performing at a level which they could otherwise not achieve and thereby gain considerable financial support.

One answer to this issue is to test everyone who comes to a major Games. That will be costly and time-consuming, but is another reason to make all Games – Olympic, Asian, Africa, European, Pan American, Commonwealth and so on – smaller.