GeneralNewsOlympicsRacingWorld CupStarting from Nothing: Estonian Skiing, Past, Present, and Future

Avatar Nathaniel HerzAugust 11, 20112
Andrus Veerpalu in the Otepaa World Cup in January, one of his last races on home soil in Estonia.

Before flying to Estonia last January, I didn’t know much about that nation’s cross-country skiers aside from their names—and their medal records.

Jaak Mae, Andrus Veerpalu, and Kristina Smigun-Vaehi—between the three of them, seven Olympic and 10 World Championship medals. Not a bad record for a country with a population of 1.3 million, or the same as the state of Maine.

But while Scandinavian stars like Petter Northug and Marit Björgen blend a certain appeal, accessibility, and charisma, there was nothing that seemed to distinguish the Estonians, save a propensity for finding their peak fitness at just the right moments. The Russians had their Vladimirs and their Olgas; the Estonians had their Kristinas and Jaaks. Every few years, they’d come out of the woodwork, win their medals, and then travel back into the darkness of Eastern Europe, with Westerners’ doubts about doping chasing them to the border and bouncing off the tatters of the Iron Curtain.

Through the beginning of last winter, I knew as much as I needed to know about the Estonians to do my job as a cross-country skiing beat reporter. Smigun was retired, while Mae and Veerpalu were both in their late thirties, but remained among the best in the business—especially in the classical technique, in which they were generally considered to be among the most graceful skiers in the world.

But come January 20, it was time for me to visit Estonia in the flesh to report on a series of races, and I decided that I should do a little bit more research. So the day I flew out of Boston, I spent some time in a bookstore reading a guidebook to the Baltics and perusing press clippings. Among other things, I learned that Estonia’s people had been denied independence for much of the 20th century, up until the 1990s, and that the country was noted for its folksinging traditions.

And, oh yeah—a press release from the organizers said that some 15,000 people show up for the annual cross-country ski races in Otepaa. Assuming those numbers were accurate, that’s just over one out of every hundred Estonian citizens—proportionally, the same as three million Americans showing up for a football game.

I left Boston for Estonia on a redeye on a Thursday night. The closer I got to the start of the World Cup races on Saturday morning, the more I sensed a strange passion among Estonians for the sport of cross-country skiing.

After landing in Tallinn, the capital of the country on its northern coast, I caught a two-hour ride to Tartu, another city in the interior that’s 45 minutes from Otepaa, where the races would take place.

For my first few nights, I stayed with the family of Vahur Teppan, an Estonian who had skied for the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. Vahur lived in Otepaa, where I’d be based for the last week of my visit. But because he was racing in the World Cup himself, I was spending the weekend in Tartu, in his mom’s apartment.

Tuuli, Vahur’s sister, picked me up at the bus station on Friday night. After a quick stop at McDonald’s for dinner, we drove back to her family’s flat. Their building, a large complex with the typical, northern-European gabled roof, was imposing from the outside. But the interior was welcoming: a cozy kitchen; a den with a big couch and a television; and my own room, complete with a wall mural depicting a pair of cross-country skiers. Tuuli left me in the den with my McDonald’s, and as I nursed my first Sprite in two years, I watched preview coverage of the World Cup races on two different Estonian television stations before going to bed.

The TV reports, though, were just the hors d’oeuvres. I got my real introduction to Estonian skiing culture the next morning, when I got up before dawn and bought a bus ticket for the 25-mile ride from Tartu to Otepaa. It was still dark when we arrived, but even as the bus rolled through the outskirts of town, I could see the floodlights in the ski stadium brightening the sky in all directions. As I walked up to the entrance to the Tehvandi Spordikeskus, I was met with a spectacle unlike anything I’d ever

The stadium in Otepaa.

seen at races in North America: tents set up for vendors to hawk flags and trinkets; a “Park of Estonian Skiing Heroes,” which was a large plaza with giant, glassed-in posters of star athletes; and, once I’d gone inside the stadium, stands with rows upon rows of seats, concessions with beer and Jagermeister, and a gleaming, four-story race headquarters that housed a cafeteria, a media center, and even a winter sports museum.

Before I’d flown across the Atlantic, I thought I’d known cross-country skiing. But I was beginning to realize that there were still some huge gaps in my knowledge. What were the roots of this fervor? What had it sprung up in Estonia? By the time the weekend was over, it was clear to me that there was a story about Estonian skiing that needed writing. As it turns out, that story is one of cross-country skiing’s most compelling—and there’s an epilogue that has yet to play out.

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After the weekend World Cup races, I moved my base of operations to Vahur’s apartment in Otepaa, where I’d be covering the World Junior Ski Championships. I also set about trying to unravel the mysteries of Estonian skiing. One of the first things I did was to set up a meeting with Tiit Pekk, the smiling, gregarious chief of competition for the Championships and a former student-athlete at the University of Colorado-Boulder.

At 40, Pekk is still well-muscled, handsome, and athletic. Tall, with close-cropped blond hair, his cheerfulness prompted a former teammate to describe him to me as “Mr. Estonia.” But Pekk’s charm belies a feverish intensity. His day job is working as an IT project manager for Swedbank; his dedication to cross-country skiing is so complete that one worries for his wife and kids. In addition to working the races in Otepaa, he’s the chairman of the International Ski Federation (FIS) committee in charge of running the entire World Cup circuit. And last February and March, he served as one of the chief officials at the 2011 World Ski Championships in Oslo. Pekk is “a little bit better balanced” today than he was in 2005, when he took 56 vacation days for skiing. (That was “quite mad,” he said.) But the guy still lives for the sport. The first time I got a chance to chat with him was when Vahur and I crashed an evening sauna with Pekk and a few of the members of the Estonian sprint team. When we arrived, the topic of discussion, over beers, was how many start spots the team was likely to earn for its quota for World Cup races next winter.

During a subsequent hour-long interview in an Otepaa hotel, Pekk took me on a tour of his country’s ski history. Later, I filled in some holes thanks to a conversation with Jaan Martinson, a bearded, bifocaled, chain-smoking reporter for the Estonian newspaper Ohtuleht. Martinson has been covering cross-country skiing for almost 15 years; he said that he has seen every single Estonian World Championship and Olympic medal-winning performance in person.

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According to the two men, the history of Estonian skiing is divided into two phases: the Soviet era, and the one that followed.

After a brief 20-year period of independence, Estonia was annexed by Russia in 1940 as part of World War II, and incorporated into the USSR. For the next half-century, it remained a part of the Soviet Republic, and its skiers did, too, wearing Russian uniforms and competing as part of Soviet teams.

The early period of Russian occupation was harsh, with campaigns of killings and deportations. A guerrilla movement was stamped out by the mid-1950’s, but Estonians still held on to some of their cultural traditions, like folksinging, as means of indirect resistance.

According to Martinson, skiing was another form of national expression. While the sport hadn’t exactly been on the fringe—he said that it’s a required activity at public schools during the winter—its popularity blossomed in the 1970’s, when an Estonian television station found a way to televise its own feed of the World Championships, with Estonian commentators—an anomaly, Martinson said, when most sports coverage came from Moscow. When the races were shown on TV, he continued, the Estonians would watch, and cheer for anyone not wearing a Soviet suit. Schools even brought televisions into the classroom to show morning races.

“All Estonians watched the TV, and everybody was against the Russians,” Martinson said. “We screamed for Swedes and Norwegians, the Finns.”

Estonia may not have had any of its own medal-winners during the Soviet era, but all along, Martinson said, the country was waiting for them. Pekk was one of the skiers who came up through the Soviet system, competing for the Estonian Soviet Republic team, which counted as his mandatory military service. His achievements included winning a Soviet Land Force championship in skiing, early in his career.

According to both Pekk and Martinson, the Soviet system provided good support for its athletes—a salary, food, housing, early-season on-snow training camps in Siberia. There were some Estonian athletes who showed glimmers of greatness. But few of them made it out of the Soviet machine in one piece, because the system was essentially training by brute force. Rather than tailoring training programs to each individual, the Soviets simply put large numbers of athletes—“meat,” Pekk called them—through various brutal regimes.

“They brought 100 [of the] best juniors, and everyone has [the] same training. Very, very hard training,” Martinson said. “If you’re still alive, you become a great skier.”

But many Estonians ended up overtrained and burned out. As an example, Pekk recounted the career of Urmas Vyalbe, the ex-husband of Russian Ski Federation President Elena Vyalbe, who destroyed his immune system in a special Soviet altitude training program. Martinson described the fall of Rutt Rehemaa, Kristina Smigun’s mother, who had a medal-winning junior career, then went through the Soviet regimen, skiing 70 kilometers a day in her teens, and burned out.

“We [had] many, many good juniors, but the Soviet Union system killed them all,” Martinson said.

One who survived, though, was Allar Levandi, a nordic combined skier with a mane of brown hair who won a bronze medal at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, at the tender age of 22. Technically, Levandi’s medal was awarded to the USSR, but coming as it did just after the first inklings of an independence movement were bubbling up in the late 80’s, the bronze was also claimed by Estonians, along with other medals won later that year by an Estonian track cyclist and basketball player who were competing in the Summer Games for the Soviet Union.

“These were very much taken as our medals, although they were representing the Soviet system,” Pekk said.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990’s, Estonians finally got the chance to compete for their own country. But while the country’s athletes had gained their independence from Russia, they were now left without the support system that had sustained them throughout the previous decades. Pekk saw the writing on the wall and got out, heading to the U.S. to continue his career, and to study. Meanwhile, the athletes and coaches that remained were left to build a program from the ground up.

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As part of my job, I read about a dozen foreign websites every day, to stay in touch with skiing news from around the world. During the last off-season, in 2010, the Russians were abuzz with what to me seemed like a relatively inconsequential development: Elena Vyalbe, the president of the Russian Ski Federation, was trying to lure longtime Estonian head coach Mati Alaver to her country.

There are a lot of Russians in Russia, and, I’m sure, plenty of ski coaches. I couldn’t understand why Vyalbe wanted Alaver so badly, but I still didn’t give it much thought, and the news was filed into the same corner of my brain occupied by other curiosities like the net worth of the Norwegian legend Björn Daehlie. For months, it remained there, until I finally arrived in Estonia and learned how Alaver had presided over the meteoric rise of his country’s ski program.

If Estonian ski culture lacked its own organizing principles after the collapse of the Soviet Union, then Alaver was its Lenin, formulating an ideology and a structure that would help propel the sport to its great accomplishments of the last 12 years.

His tenure, however, did not begin auspiciously. The Estonian Ski Federation was starved for cash in the early 1990s, when Alaver got to work, and according to Martinson, the operation was running on a shoestring. The athletes, Martinson said, had no money for a car, and at one point they even resorted to carrying bags of food, on foot, to a train that would take them

Mati Alaver (R), trailside in Otepaa.

to a training camp in Finland. Veerpalu, who was supporting a wife and child, actually borrowed money from Alaver to put food on the table. At the 1992 Olympic Games in France, Veerpalu raced on cheap skis from Visu, an Estonian ski company, with Alaver himself doing the waxing. Martinson described Estonia at that point as the “poorest ski nation in the world.”

For the first half of the decade, there was no indication that Veerpalu and Mae, Alaver’s chosen pupils, were on track to challenge the world’s best—let alone win eight Olympic and World Championship medals over the course of their careers. Their results in skate technique were abysmal, but even in their favored, classic technique, even on good days, they rarely climbed higher than 30th place.

Alaver, though, had a plan. Not just a series of workouts, or an altitude training protocol, but a comprehensive blueprint for a program that would take the Estonians to another level. According to Pekk, after the Lillehammer Olympics, in 1994, Alaver wrote a thesis detailing his systematic approach.

“The foundation of what they are doing, he laid down in ’94, and he has been pursuing this ever since,” Pekk said.

Physiologically, Pekk said, Alaver’s design was largely based on what he had learned from the Russians—his teachers are “a list of Soviet great coaches.” According to Martinson, when the Soviets came to Estonia for training camps, Alaver would watch them for hours, taking notes. There were Scandinavian influences, too—Finnish coaches, and the Norwegian journeyman Inge Bråten, according to Pekk.

Another key ingredient was Alaver’s own research. A graduate of Tartu University, Alaver is constantly in pursuit of knowledge, science, and data on topics ranging from strength training to nutrition. Martinson called him the best-read coach in all of Estonia—his mind is legendary.

“He’s so phenomenal with numbers,” Björn Kristiansen, a Norwegian who coached the Estonian sprint team for the last five years, told me in a phone interview. “Places, times, VO2 max results or other results—he just knows…I would say he has been one of the strongest coaches I’ve ever worked with, because he’s a bank of information.”

Coaching, though, was only half of Alaver’s job. The rest was money—doing the fundraising required to turn Estonia’s ski team into a more muscular, legitimate operation. That meant, essentially, going door-to-door to entreat various businesses.

“He still has files, how many hundreds of letters he has sent to companies for fundraising,” Pekk said.

Alaver, a lean man with a stern, chiseled face, has a natural charisma, and as the skiers’ results improved, he was ultimately able to bring large companies on board, like Saku—the Estonian equivalent of Budweiser—and Swedbank.

“He’s a great public speaker. One day he will go to politics—there’s no question,” Pekk said.

According to Martinson, physiological testing showed Alaver that both Veerpalu and Mae had potential. But before they could start peaking to win big races, Alaver put them through years of hard training. During one camp, Martinson said,

Andrus Veerpalu racing in Estonia.

Veerpalu called Alaver, who had stayed behind to save money.

“We are practicing more than all [the] others,” Veerpalu said, according to Martinson. “But they beat us by minutes.”

“Wait—wait a couple more years,” Alaver told him. Then, he said, the two men could start a different kind of training—“to be winners.”

On February 28, 1999, in Ramsau, Germany—more than six years after his first World Cup competition—Veerpalu climbed onto the podium of an international race for the first time. He had just won the silver medal in the 50 k classic at the World Ski Championships.

Over the next 12 years of his career, Veerpalu would go on to win five more major medals, with Mae pitching in two of his own. Early in the post-Soviet era, some had derided the Estonian ski program, and even suggested that it was not worth funding. But by the time I arrived, Alaver and his two pupils had become beloved. The front-page photos and double-page spreads in the national newspaper during the World Cup were one example. But the adulation wasn’t limited to the one weekend a year that the circuit stopped in Otepaa—the skiers’ economic success was testament to that. In 2004, for example, Veerpalu became an investor in one of the hotels in Otepaa. All the major athletes, and even some of the minor ones, now have their own car sponsorships. (Mae drives a personalized Mercedes Benz.) And the country’s ski association, Martinson said, is now the “biggest, best federation in Estonia.”

“They have a lot of money,” he said.

Why, and how, had the skiers become so popular? And what made them so appealing? I couldn’t get clear answers to those questions while I was in Estonia. The results were obviously one factor, but results alone aren’t enough to sustain an entire country’s passion. One explanation, Pekk surmised, was that the athletes had worked to improve their public personas—an area in which he said they had not always been “gifted.”

“They have changed a lot. Their mindset—what they are explaining, how much they can express,” he said. “With this media attention that they have got, their coaches, their advisors…have put quite a bit of effort into this.”

There’s also charisma. I never spoke with either Alaver or Veerpalu—neither speaks English, and my visit was too brief to organize an interview with a translator—but my colleague, Chelsea Little, talked with both of them in Finland last fall (with the help of her Russian-speaking coach), and the two men made a big impression. Alaver, she said, was a natural, compelling speaker, even in Estonian.

“He was very outgoing, very personable, very willing to talk,” she said. “He just acts, and looks, and personifies somebody who knows what’s up—he’s like a really athletic, attractive grandfather.”

Tall, with blue eyes, Veerpalu was much more reserved—he was not one to rattle off his accomplishments.  But Chelsea said that there was still something quietly powerful about him, a kind of sincerity. When Veerpalu opens his mouth, “you want to hear what he has to say.”

Veerpalu conducting an interview.

“He just wasn’t really that interested in self-promotion, or even discussing himself,” she said. “He seemed very focused, and content on the life he had made for himself.”

One final factor might be that as the Estonians reeled off medal after medal over the last decade, they gave the country’s citizens an outlet for the nationalistic feelings that had been silenced up until the very end of the Soviet era. There’s no easy way to measure that. But if the number of flags toted by spectators to the Otepaa races serves as quantification, the dozens in the stands and along the trailside certainly make that case.

“Relative success at different international competitions has prompted Estonians to put more money and effort into the national past-time itself, since Estonia can’t compete in all of the major fields,” Vello Pettai, a political scientist and an expert on Estonia, wrote me in an e-mail. “When this kind of investment pays off with a real medal, it raises pride in the nation, and naturally prompts even more investment and enthusiasm.”

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Veerpalu and Mae, between them, have won eight major medals on behalf of their country. But that total actually represents less than half the total hardware brought home by Estonian skiers since the country’s independence. The rest of the medals, all nine of them, belong to a woman who eschewed Alaver’s methods: Kristina Smigun.

The most decorated athlete in the history of Estonian skiing, Smigun has an unrivaled athletic pedigree, as the daughter of two elite skiers in their own rights. That was clear from when she was in her teens, as she racked up six medals over three years at the World Junior Championships—including one race in Canada that she won by nearly half a minute over her sister, Katrin.

Smigun ended her career in 2010, after winning her third Olympic medal; up until then, she was coached by her father, Anatoli. Anatoli Smigun is a Russian-born, former Soviet ski team member with an education from a sport institute in Moscow, according to Martinson, who recently finished co-authoring Kristina’s autobiography.

For the most part, Kristina Smigun didn’t work with Alaver or his two male stars, instead relying on her own support crew known as “Team Smigun.” That split highlights something that took me quite a while to discover: Despite all of his success, not everybody thinks that Mati Alaver is the greatest thing since sliced rye bread.

In the first few interviews I did with Estonians, people spoke about the coach in reverential, hushed tones. He seemed to be a mythic figure in the skiing community, with his reputation as a physiological genius. But I got a very different perspective from Oleg Ragilo, an Estonian wax technician who was working for the American team throughout the World Junior Championships.

Martinson told me that Ragilo had been Smigun’s chief ski waxer for much of her career, and at the tail end of the races in

Kristina Smigun (in white and blue) on the way to gold at the 2006 Olympics.

Otepaa, I cornered him for an interview for a profile. We also discussed Estonian skiing more generally, and almost immediately, Ragilo’s feelings about Alaver were clear: he didn’t like the guy.

At first, the criticisms were vague—Ragilo complained how the Estonian Ski Association treated Alaver “like a god.” But then, he got more specific, saying that Alaver’s training system is formulaic, with a predictable seven-day cycle, and that it only works for Veerpalu and Mae, Alaver’s two stars. While that pair had obviously prospered, Ragilo recounted a story about the former World Junior Champion Aivar Rehemaa that ended differently. After joining the Estonian national team, Rehemaa promptly saw his results go downhill, but when he went back to work with Anatoli Smigun, they recovered.

Ragilo has spent most of his career working with the Smiguns, so it’s possible his beef could be as much political or personal as anything else. It was obvious that Ragilo had problems with Alaver’s style as much as his substance: he said that the coach operates like a “psychologist,” and treats people as though they are “below him.”

But a closer look at Estonian results—past the heroics of Veerpalu and Mae—shows that Ragilo might actually have a point.

Estonian juniors have had their share of successes over the past few years, and there’s some talent in the pipeline. But with Smigun’s retirement after the 2010 season, and with Veerpalu and Mae departing last spring, the Estonian media—and to a certain extent, its citizens—have been hotly debating the future of their nation’s ski program. The podium performances by their stars have come fast and thick over the past decade, but at least when it comes to distance racing, there’s no one that appears to be immediately poised to fill the void left by their retirements. Things are especially bad on the women’s side: at this year’s World Ski Championships in Oslo, the Estonians didn’t even field a female relay team. And at the distance race at their home World Cup, the one I attended in January, they had just a single women’s starter: 25-year-old Laura Rohtla, who finished 38th out of 49 starters.

“We could have entered 13 [women], maybe,” Pekk said. “But we had one. So this is hard—this is the chance to promote your sport, and you have the one athlete.”

As for the men, things are slightly better. There’s a small handful of non-Veerpalu and non-Mae Estonians who have crept into the top 20 places in distance World Cup races in the last few years. Algo Karp, 26, finished 23rd in the 15 k at World Championships in March, and his teammate Karel Tammjarv, an up-and-comer at 22, was just three places farther back. And at the World U-23 Championships in January, Tammjarv made it into the top 10 two separate times.

For non-nordic powerhouse nations, those results would be enough to keep people optimistic—especially when you also remember that the country’s sprint team has two men, in Peeter Kummel and Kein Einaste, who each came close to podium

Peeter Kummel (left).

finishes in the last year. Both are still under 30, and have room for improvement. But in the mean time, the Estonian public, which has celebrated 17 Olympic and World Championship medals in the past 12 years, isn’t content with top-10’s. After Kummel finished sixth in the World Championships sprint in Oslo, Martinson told me that the result was “very good—but not enough for us.”

There are all kinds of questions about the future. Should the country be shifting its focus to sprinting, because that’s where it’s closest to a breakthrough? Or should it leave that focus on distance racing, where its heritage is stronger? What about putting more of an emphasis on skating—the technique that has historically been its weakness? Estonian skiing also needs to make more of an investment in training its coaches, Pekk said, though finding the funding to do so remains a challenge.

“The standard of living is still so low in Estonia that having so many volunteers working with kids—it’s a long shot before that will take,” he said.

As far as the current predicament, how much of the blame—if that’s the right word—to place on Alaver is unclear. On the one hand, in coaching Mae and Veerpalu, he has accomplished more than anyone could have imagined back in the thrifty post-Soviet days of the early 1990’s. Eight Olympic and World Championship medals is enough to merit a bit of laurel-resting.

On the other hand, Alaver is also the architect of the whole Estonian ski program, and the head coach of the country’s national team. One could argue he should be held responsible for its fate—even after the retirement of its big stars. Pekk seemed inclined to do so, at least in part, acknowledging that as far as the Estonian women were concerned, Alaver’s ideology “has not held.”

“The attention has been with the older guys,” he said. “Kristina’s had her separate team, lived her separate life, but overall, the ladies’ part has not been the focus.”

“This is a really tough time at the moment,” Pekk continued. Mae, Veerpalu, and Smigun have given the Estonians “so many moments. But what is after that?”

In March, with the departure of Veerpalu and Mae, the Estonian Ski Association suffered through several spasms of upheaval. A number of key support staff departed the program for greener pastures, like Urmas Vyalbe, a wax technician who worked closely with Jaak Mae, and Lauri Rannamaa, a physiotherapist. In total, according to Kristiansen, the sprint coach, four out of five of the team’s wax staff went to go work for Russia. Money was a problem: in a report in his newspaper, Ohtuleht, Martinson quoted Alaver as saying that lackluster results at the World Championships cost the Estonians crucial funding from the country’s Olympic committee.

But still, it didn’t appear to be a full-on crisis. Alaver’s rumored departure for Russia was never confirmed; Kristiansen, the sprint coach, wasn’t going anywhere. The up-and-coming athletes were still on board, as well as Kummel and Einaste, the two sprinters who are closest to a breakthrough. The key pieces of the program seemed intact. At least, that is, until early April, when the Estonian media began reporting that Veerpalu had tested positive for human growth hormone.

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The news wasn’t exactly out of the blue: when the Norwegian coach Björn Kristiansen first traveled to Estonia to head the country’s sprint team, in 2006, he had heard all the rumors.

“I thought I was going to Russia. I thought, ‘oh, okay, they’re doing some fake and illegal stuff,’” Kristiansen said. “But I was promised free hands to deal with the sprinting when we made the contract, so I thought, ‘okay, let’s try.’”

Suspicions had always abounded around Veerpalu and Mae for their uncanny ability to peak perfectly for important events—racing sparingly and slowly early in the season only to come on strong and sudden when it counted. In 2009, Veerpalu won

Veerpalu.

a World Championship gold medal in late February; up until that point in the year, he hadn’t cracked the podium a single time.

There were other questions, too. Smigun had had an A-sample test positive for steroids in 2001, only to have the B-sample come back negative. (A World Anti-Doping Agency official later said that that was because the lab that did the first test thought Smigun was male, according to a report in the British newspaper The Guardian.) And when a Norwegian reporter claimed to have obtained leaked results from tests looking at fluctuations in blood values among athletes participating at the 2001 World Championships in Lahti, Finland, Veerpalu was among a group whose numbers were considered “abnormal.” (Dr. Jim Stray-Gundersen, the author of a study that was widely suspected as being the source of the test results, would not confirm the reporter’s claims in an e-mail to me, citing the confidentiality of his findings.)

Estonia was also a former Soviet Republic, and the USSR’s record on performance-enhancing drugs is dubious, to put it mildly. According to a paper that appeared in 2003 in Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, a scholarly journal published by Johns Hopkins University Press, the Soviets conducted studies on the effects of blood doping on swimmers and runners, then used the technique on skiers and biathletes at the 1976 and 1980 Olympic Games. The author of the article, citing a Russian PhD dissertation report, said that the practice was “pervasive” during the 1970s and 1980s.

While I couldn’t find any irrefutable evidence linking Estonian skiers to drugs during this period, Levandi, the medal-winning nordic combined skier, was tied to a minor scandal in the late ’80s. A 1989 report in the British newspaper The Independent cited a Soviet magazine, Smena, as claiming it had evidence that an East German anti-doping lab providing tip-offs to Levandi and two other athletes that they had traces of performance-enhancing drugs still in their bodies in “pre-departure tests”—which in turn enabled them to withdraw from major championships before they could test positive.

But when Kristiansen arrived in Estonia, and throughout his ensuing five-year tenure as the sprint coach, he didn’t see any of that. Instead, to his surprise, the key components of the Estonian training plan appeared to be physical, not chemical.

“The way they have worked in these five years, it’s what I’m used to when I see Norwegian elite, or [what] top-level athletes are doing,” he told me. “What they were doing—it was just pure, hard work, as I’ve been used to in my life as a skier, and also, after that, as a coach. I didn’t suspect anything, actually…. After a while, my Russian imagination was just gone.”

There would always be rumors, but by the time I arrived in Estonia in January, it appeared that all three of its greats—Veerpalu, Mae, and Smigun—would be able to close the doors on their careers without any hard evidence of cheating.

Still, it was a topic that Pekk seemed reticent to address during our conversation in Otepaa. When I first asked him about doping allegations, he abruptly changed the subject to the next day’s weather. When I pushed him, he acknowledged that the rumors were something that the Estonians had to stomach if they were going to rely on Alaver’s training philosophy, which was itself largely based on Soviet methods. Coming into the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, Pekk said, he was warned by Estonian journalists that the Scandinavians would not accept Veerpalu, Mae, and Smigun waltzing into major championships and collecting medals that had typically gone to the Norwegians and Swedes.

“The journalists actually said, before it happened, that you will be attacked because you are there, [in] what they perceive as their playground,” Pekk said. “One month later, it was there.”

The more time that I spent in Estonia—and the more that I learned from Pekk, Martinson, and others about the country’s ski program—the more that I was inclined to believe that its skiers were clean. Pekk’s analysis made perfect sense. When I traveled to Norway later in the winter, I witnessed the exact same air of superiority that he had described—a refusal to see as credible any performance that bested a Scandinavian’s. When I mentioned to one of my Norwegian hosts that I had traveled to Estonia and developed a greater respect for the accomplishments of Veerpalu and the others, she sniffed, and immediately said something about artificial enhancements.

As the winter wound down, I grew more and more determined to show people the remarkable backstory of the Estonian program—which, perhaps, would make them pause a little bit longer before dismissing the country’s skiers as just another bunch of dopers.

But then, in the final days leading up to the World Championships in Oslo in late February, word came out of Estonia that Veerpalu was injured. First, he skipped the championship tune-up races; then, as attention and tension mounted, he made the abrupt announcement a few days later that he’d have to miss the Oslo races, too.

Just like that, Veerpalu’s career was over: with the news that he would miss World Championships came the decision that he would be retiring. For Estonians, who had hoped for perhaps one last medal, it was a huge disappointment. But the reaction paled in comparison to what came next. In late March, anonymously-sourced reports began appearing that said Veerpalu had failed a drug test. Initially, no one would confirm them, but after a few days, as a media frenzy began building, Veerpalu acknowledged in a tearful press conference that one of his samples had indeed tested positive.

The story-book tale of the Estonian achievements—20 years in the making, and just months from its conclusion—had just been punctured like a balloon. Even if Veerpalu is ultimately acquitted, the stain of a positive drug test will never be fully rinsed from his career, and among non-Estonians, it will likely forever obscure both his fairy-tale successes, and his intriguing cultural significance at home. It’s not just Veerpalu’s accomplishments that will be called into question, either. Fairly or not, the doping positive raises doubts over the whole Estonian program—over Alaver’s regime, and perhaps even Smigun’s career, as well. If Alaver was coaching Veerpalu, and Veerpalu was doping, would Mae, his counterpart, have been doing anything different? And Smigun may have worked in a separate program, but she comes from the same country, and from the same ski culture, too.

To a large extent, Estonia’s skiing future is staked on the outcome of the case—Alaver and the entire board of the country’s ski association have said that they will resign if Veerpalu is found guilty. There has already been significant fallout: after the announcement of the positive test, Kristiansen resigned from his position as sprint coach. In an interview a few months later, he told me that he was “furious” that he’d had to learn of the positive test through the press—not directly from the Estonian Ski Association—and that he refused to work with people who doped their athletes. Still, he said, the decision was one of the hardest he’s ever had to make, since the sprinters weren’t involved in the scandal.

“One day, you’re really motivated to continue, and the next day you just feel that someone has trampled you, down in the mud,” he said. “It’s unfair, I would say, because [the sprinters] are harmed by me stepping aside, ending my coaching there.”

“Whether they like it or not, they’re struck by people turning their back to them. That means sponsors, and the skiing community—and especially the Norwegian skiing community,” Kristiansen said.

Kristiansen had commuted between Norway and Estonia during his time as the country’s sprint coach; now, he’s living at home outside of Oslo, where he’s coaching at a local high school, and still mentoring some of the Estonians. He said his association with the team has damaged his prospects of getting a job at the national team level. But when I asked Kristiansen if he thought that the Estonians were capable of pulling off a doping regimen, he was still skeptical.

“I haven’t been there 24/7, or year-round, so everything would be possible,” he said, emphasizing that he was speculating. “I haven’t even been 24/7, full year-round with my athletes in the sprint group. So it could even have been possible to be [doping] there. But I’d say that they’re not doing any systematic doping—nope. That’s my impression, but it might be that I’m stupid, and perhaps I’m even used for this cause—that I was hired in five years ago, to just make a blur over what they’re doing.”

—————

Veerpalu’s arguments were heard in June by FIS’s Doping Panel, the federation’s internal body charged with judging the case.

After the positive test was made public in April, Veerpalu and the Estonian Ski Federation assembled a muscular defense team. Participants in the FIS hearing included Veerpalu himself, two lawyers from a prominent Estonian firm, and two scientific experts. Other scientists have also been consulted in the case, according to Ilmar-Erik Aavakivi, one of the two lawyers.

In an e-mail, Aavakivi laid out his team’s assault on Veerpalu’s positive test, starting with the definitive statement that “Mr. Veerpalu has not used growth hormone or any other type of doping. He has to be found NOT GUILTY.”

Aavakivi said that the problems with Veerpalu’s case began with the sample itself, which he claimed was collected under “exceptional circumstances,” though he refused to go into the details of those circumstances. But he didn’t stop there—the defense team, Aavakivi said, has had “a lot to say” against the positive test.

Among their lines of argument, he continued, are that the defense team found problems with the reliability and accuracy of the HGH test itself, as well as problems with the handling of the sample by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), which accredited the lab in Cologne, Germany, where Aavakivi said that the analysis was conducted. One of the facts highlighted by the Veerpalu’s scientific team, Aavakivi said, was that the values measuring HGH in the A- and B-samples differed by 34 percent. And after citing a 2010 article in which a WADA official was quoted emphasizing the need for “rigorous” policies for the collection and storage of blood samples drawn for HGH tests, Aavakivi said that “we can say and have said that WADA has not followed its own procedures. Definitely, WADA’s diligence shown in this case has been far from ‘rigorous.’”

A WADA spokesman declined to respond to Aavakivi’s allegations; Sarah Lewis, the FIS secretary general, was similarly mum. It’s hard to tell how much credence to give Aavakivi’s arguments, given his own refusal to go into the details. To get some more information, I contacted Richard Holt, a Britain-based endocrinology professor who has worked to develop an alternative HGH test to the one currently in use. He wouldn’t speak to the specifics of Veerpalu’s case, but he did send me a review article he’d written about HGH doping. The piece suggested that if there’s any criticism that could be made of the current test, it’s that it doesn’t do a good enough job of ensnaring dopers—not that it has a tendency to produce false-positives. The window for catching an HGH doper is short, Holt wrote—the hormone is “frequently undetectable in a blood sample taken the morning after an injection.” He also noted that the HGH test was performed more than 1000 times before identifying its first culprit in 2010—six years after the procedure had been introduced.

As for the 34 percent difference between the A- and B-samples? In his e-mail, Holt said that “analytical variation” can cause swings of up to 10 percent in lab measurements. Since the test looks at a ratio of two different values, those swings could be present in each, leading to a divergence that could be, roughly, as high as 20 percent. But that still doesn’t account for the Aavakivi’s claim of a 34 percent gulf.

Complexities aside, the case is, most likely, still a long way from resolution. The Estonian media has reported that FIS will likely release a verdict by the end of the summer, but Veerpalu’s team can appeal a guilty ruling; the case would then be considered in another hearing by the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which has the final say on the matter. Conversely, if Veerpalu is found innocent by FIS, WADA could appeal that ruling, though its spokesman declined to comment on the likelihood it would do so.

—————

The outcome of the Veerpalu proceedings will undoubtedly have huge ramifications for the Estonian ski program’s reputation, and its

The poster of Veerpalu in Otepaa's Park of Estonian Skiing Heroes.

future. There’s no question that it’s in for some hard times, with the departure of some staff members already announced, as well as the potential for losses in sponsorship after the retirements and the doping scandal. But it’s now, with some doubts raised about his legacy, that Alaver will have to show that he can succeed with skiers other than Veerpalu and Mae, Kristianson said. If Alaver had wrapped up his coaching career after Veerpalu’s gold medal in the 2009 World Championships, “he had nothing more to prove.”

“Now, perhaps, it’s the other way around,” Kristiansen said. “Now it’s important to prove something.”

Martinson, though, thinks that some leaner times might not hurt the Estonians. Thanks to the success of the country’s ski association, all the Estonian athletes—even juniors—receive plenty of perks, like the car sponsorships. In a conversation with Alaver, Martinson said he told the coach that perhaps the reason that Estonia was having a hard time producing a second generation of star athletes was because they had it too easy. Perhaps, he said, the new skiers need to be doing what Smigun and Veerpalu did during those Spartan post-Soviet days: “take [their] own food, and [go] by train to Finland.”

“Maybe,” Martinson said, “they have to start from nothing.”

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Nathaniel Herz

Nathaniel Herz is a reporter for FasterSkier, who also covers city government for the Anchorage Daily News in Alaska. You can follow him on twitter @nat_herz.

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2 comments

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    PixelPaul

    August 11, 2011 at 9:02 am

    What an enjoyable read, well done!

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    sailguy

    August 11, 2011 at 9:32 am

    A great article, Nat. You write lots of ‘good’ articles, but this one is at another level, like last year’s Kris Freeman story.

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