How Andrus Veerpalu’s Doping Case Turned into a Mudfight

Chelsea LittleSeptember 26, 20113
Veerpalu racing on the World Cup last season.

As soon as the news broke that Estonian Olympic gold medalist and world champion Andrus Veerpalu had tested positive for human growth hormone (HGH), the ski world knew that a fight lay ahead.

For Veerpalu and the Estonians, a doping ban would be disastrous; as FasterSkier reported earlier this summer, the tiny country had built its ski program from the ground up after achieving independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, and a young but powerful legacy of success was at stake for the whole nation, not just its biggest star. Most of the Estonian Ski Federation’s leadership promised to step down if Veerpalu was convicted.

For the International Ski Federation (FIS), the pressure was on, as well. For years, the ski community had accused the Estonians of doping as they won medal after medal at World Championships and the Olympics. But none of the racers had ever been caught, and rumors continued to be just that.

While everyone knew that they were in for a battle, the minutes from the doping panel’s hearing, obtained by FasterSkier, show a full-on war, with Veerpalu launching protest after protest against everything from the HGH test itself to a typo in the blood sample’s documentation package. The minutes also show a misunderstanding between FIS and the Estonian ski federation, and finally, a harsh penalty from FIS that is almost without precedent.

Veerpalu is currently appealing a three-year ban handed down by FIS; his case is now before the Court of Arbitration for Sport. In the meantime, we dig into the details.

How it All Began

As soon as Veerpalu and the Estonian federation were notified of the positive A-sample on February 15th, they launched into damage control.

That very day, the doping panel’s minutes show that the federation’s president, Toomas Savi, called Sarah Lewis, the secretary-general of FIS. Savie reportedly told Lewis that Veerpalu’s career was ending immediately due to a knee injury – the star missed almost the entire 2007 season after coming back too quickly from arthroscopic surgery in 2006 – and asked that FIS not disclose the positive test to the public until after World Championships in Oslo had concluded. Lewis acquiesced, and also agreed to investigate whether the B-sample could be examined after World Championships, not sooner as in many other doping cases.

Savi recently explained to the press that he had wanted to protect other members of the Estonian ski team; had the media storm begun before World Championships, he worried that other athletes would have been distracted, and that the whole team would not have performed well.

FIS and the Estonians each thought that they had some sort of agreement, and proceeded accordingly. Roughly a week after the initial notification from FIS, Veerpalu announced his withdrawal from the World Championships in Oslo, and his immediate retirement.

“We have prepared for the World Ski Championships, and all the team put in a lot of work, but health, and probably age too, have sent signals that even the most ambitious sportsman has to take into account,” he said in a statement at the time. “I would have dearly liked to cap off a career nicely at the World Championships, but real life is something else.”

As World Championships progressed, and rumors about Veerpalu began to swirl, FIS denied that a positive test had occurred.

“I have heard rumors about the alleged doping case against Veerpalu, but…we have no case against him now,” FIS Anti-Doping Administrator Sarah Fussek told the Norwegian Aftenposten newspaper on March 4th.

Four days later, FIS notified the Estonian federation that it would proceed with the case, and it soon became clear that Savi’s phone conversation had sparked some sort of misunderstanding.

The first hint of trouble was that FIS’s letter stated that Veerpalu had admitted to doping, which both Veerpalu and the Estonian federation deny.

The B-sample was another point of contention. The Estonians apparently believed that FIS had agreed to allow the sample to be opened later; they responded to the letter by requesting that the B-sample be examined. FIS, however, pointed out that the period during which the athlete could request that the sample be analyzed had closed on February 24th. But “considering the achievements of the[a]thlete as a former champion,” they accepted the request anyway.

Veerpalu and a scientist he had chosen were present for the opening of the B-sample, which also came back positive for HGH.

Desperate Times Call for Desperate Measures

After six Olympic Games and 20 years on the World Cup circuit, Veerpalu had made a name for himself as a quiet, humble champion. He was reclusive, spent most of his time with his family, and tried to avoid the media circus. But as has been the case with many other famous athletes who have been accused of doping, the Estonian was willing to go to almost any length to prove his innocence.

The doping panel’s minutes show Veerpalu tried not just any tactic, but all of them. He mounted a truly exhausting number of arguments in the hearing, many of which had little scientific or legal basis.

For instance, Veerpalu claimed that because more than the recommended 36 hours had elapsed between when his blood sample was collected and when it was centrifuged, the result should be invalid. In the hearing minutes, Dr. Osquel Barroso noted that the longer delay would lead to under-reporting the true concentration of HGH in the blood, not to a false postive. Barroso, who works for the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), was serving as the independent expert, although FIS acknowledged its ties to WADA.

Because antidoping test protocols are not publicized, FasterSkier was unable to confirm either side of the argument. Confusingly, the test window for HGH is aproximately 36 hours, after which injected hormones are no longer detectable in the bloodstream if a sample is collected. Veerpalu, however, is talking about a 36-hour delay between the sample collection and processing, which is a separate issue.

Veerpalu also claimed that the long workout he had just completed must have changed his blood chemistry.

But while a 1999 study by a group of European and Australian researchers showed that exercise did spike HGH levels in the bloodstream by more then tenfold, the decline was dramatic after exercise stopped. The scientists reported that the half-life of HGH was just twenty minutes, meaning that if Veerpalu experienced a normal-sized spike in HGH, by the time he was tested two hours later the concentration in his blood would have returned to normal.

However, his team also argues that he was genetically predisposed to a higher-than-usual spike in HGH. An Estonian scientist named Anton Terasmaa claims to have sequenced Veerpalu’s DNA and revealed a mutation.

“Andrus Veerpalu exhibits uniquely strong post-exertion production of  growth hormone,” he told Estonian Public Broadcasting in late August. “It became evident that while other skiers had a tenfold rise in the level of  growth hormone, in Veerpalu it was a hundredfold.”

If Veerpalu did experience a hundredfold increase in HGH, then after two hours his blood would still show higher-than-normal levels of the hormone.

Terasmaa, who is a geneticist at the University of Tartu and works on mice, said that he had sent his analysis to FIS, but that the panel had ordered it sealed until recently. The doping panel, however, wrote in its minutes that “the Athlete has not provided any evidence that would indicate the existence of that genetic particularity.” It’s unclear whether the panel meant that it never received the documents that Terasmaa alluded to, or that it did not find them convincing. Without the actual documents, it’s tough to assess the legitimacy of Terasmaa’s claims.

Terasmaa’s genetic explanation was tarnished by his next argument, which had little scientific basis. Terasmaa told the panel that Veerpalu showed higher levels of HGH because he had been living in a hotel room pressurized to simulate a high elevation. Terasmaa said that that this would increase production of HGH, but the relationship between altitude and HGH has not been researched with any degree of rigor; FIS noted that there is only a single study on how elevation affects HGH concentrations in the blood, which concluded that there was no effect.

FasterSkier found the study, which was published in 1994 by researchers from Milan, Italy. They selected seven men to run a marathon at 4,000 meters of elevation, and found that the increased HGH concentrations found following the marathon were smaller than the increases reported by previous researchers working at sea level.

The champion’s last major line of defense was that the HGH test was not reliable.

Strictly speaking, he is right: The test doesn’t always tell whether an athlete is doping or not. It is very difficult to detect actual HGH use, and Veerpalu is among a very small handful of athletes that WADA has caught. (After years of testing, an English rugby player produced the first positive test in February 2010). The HGH test has a false-positive rate of roughly one in 10,000, and much more frequently produces false negatives.

Not only was the weakness of the test not in Veerpalu’s favor, but WADA, not FIS, selects test procedures, so even if the panel had bought his argument, they would not have been able to erase his positive finding, FIS said.

“It is not the responsibility of the FIS Doping Panel to question the applied testing method as long as a method which is validated and admitted by WADA and documented by the respective document has been used,” the panel noted in its hearing minutes.

There were other arguments, including that there was a typo on the sample documentation package. But the doping panel rejected each of Veerpalu’s many claims.

The Flip Side

One of the most interesting arguments from the pre-decision minutes is not one that was made by Veerpalu and his legal team. Instead, it was a simple question for FIS: Why did its panel assert that the Estonian star had admitted to doping?

Back when FIS notified the Estonian federation that the doping panel was opening a case against Veerpalu, they included one piece of surprising information.

“By a letter dated 8 March 2011, the FIS informed the [Estonians] that since the Athlete had admitted the use of the prohibited substance verbally and through his withdrawal from the FIS World Ski Championships in Oslo 2011 and his immediate retirement from sports, the case would now be dealt with by the FIS Doping Panel,” FIS wrote in its minutes.

But Veerpalu and his lawyers immediately replied that the skier had never admitted to doping. While fans may remember a tear-filled press conference in early April, that event transpired later. And while Veerpalu was crying as he announced that he had tested positive, he still publicly denied taking any banned substances.

There’s no evidence that he made a confession in private, either. The doping panel’s minutes do not record any conversation in which Veerpalu admitted to doping. In fact, the minutes note that FIS notified the Estonian federation of the positive test and that the president asked to avoid public disclosure, but do not show that FIS and Veerpalu ever interacted at all.

Lewis, the FIS secretary general, declined to comment, citing the fact that the case was still pending, and Patrick Smith, a Canadian judge who heads the FIS doping panel, did not respond to a request for an interview.

But Ilmar-Erik Aavakivi, a partner in the law firm representing Veerpalu, said that FIS had pulled the admission out of thin air.

“The information about the Athlete’s ‘confession’ is not accurate,” Aavakivi wrote in an e-mail to FasterSkier. “It is just not true. Andrus Veerpalu has never admitted the doping use. He has always said that he has not used doping. Moreover, he has not personally communicated with FIS (Ms. Sarah Lewis), after the blood samples’ results.”

So what made the panel decide that he had confessed? And, even after Veerpalu’s lawyers told FIS that he had not, in fact, confessed, continue to assert that he had?

“FIS attributes the admittance of doping use to the contacts the general secretary of [the] Estonian Ski Association has made on behalf of the [a]thlete in February,” Aavakivi wrote. “FIS has interpreted this communication and the following withdrawal /retirement as the admittance of doping use. In reality, the [a]thlete has never said that he has used doping, and has never authorized anyone to say something like that on his behalf.”

Aavakivi pointed out that Veerpalu had little choice but to retire, since he was planning to do so at the end of the season anyway and could not compete with a provisional suspension.

“What was left for him to do?” the lawyer asked.

A Ban Above and Beyond

After squabbles, misunderstandings, and myriad arguments from Veerpalu, the FIS doping panel did something that took his team by surprise: instead of a standard two-year ban, they tacked on one more, prohibiting Veerpalu from competing for three years.

At no time in the last decade does FIS appear to have handed down a three-year ban, and their guidelines state that it is rare to do so for a first-time offense.

The rules do address increased sentences, and describe situations when they are appropriate. Four examples of “aggravating circumstances” include systematic or methodical doping, the use of multiple banned substances and methods, the use of a masking agent to hide a banned substance, or an instance where the effects of the substance are so long-lasting that after a standard ban, the athlete would still have some benefit. Veerpalu was not accused of these types of violations.

In its minutes, the panel gave two reasons for the three-year ban. First, they said, they considered his immediate announcement of retirement “rather disturbing,” and believed that it was obstruction of justice, akin to using a masking agent.

However, Veerpalu is not the first athlete to have immediately announced his retirement following a positive test. CAS documents from Yuliya Chepalova’s 2010 doping case show that the Russian Ski Federation sent FIS administrators an e-mail when they learned that the Olympic champion had tested positive for EPO.

The case “could be closed,” the federation wrote, because Chepalova was retiring.

And like Veerpalu, even after filling out the official retirement form for FIS, Chepalova continued to fight the charges against her. And at the end of the day, FIS handed Chepalova a two-year ban, without tacking on additional punishment for her efforts to avoid a ban by retiring.

The second reason cited by FIS for its increased penalty was essentially that Veerpalu meant to dope.

“The FIS Doping Panel is also disturbed by the fact that [the HGH] cannot have been applied incidentally like, e.g., a substance contained in medication negligently prescribed or administered by a doctor,” it wrote in the minutes. Instead, the HGH use “required a high degree of expertise, and a methodical approach with the help of medical personnel.”

If an athlete accidentally takes a prohibited substance, like the recent case of Ukrainian biathlete Oksana Khvostenko, sanctions can be reduced. (In that instance, the International Biathlon Union imposed a one-year ban.)

But the vast majority of doping cases do not address instances of accidental doping, and over the last decade, FIS has not increased the period of ineligibility for any other skiers, even if they appeared to have doped intentionally.

Even the handful of Russians who tested positive for EPO – the presence of which, like HGH, isn’t generally ascribed to accidental application – received standard, two-year bans. Yuliya Chepalova was joined on the bench by teammates Yevgeniy Dementiev, Sergey Shiryaev, Nina Rysina, Nikolai Pankratov, and Natalia Matveeva, many of whom are just finishing their sentences and will return to competition this season.

So why did FIS increase the length of the Veerpalu’s ban? Aavakivi, the lawyer, has a theory.

“According to the decision, with imposing the sanction of three years (instead of two years), FIS is rebuking the Athlete for not requesting the opening of B-sample immediately,” Aavakivi wrote in an e-mail. “We believe that the actual reason behind increasing of the sanction is that the Athlete put up a very strong defence against the adverse analytical finding. The fact that he dared to scientifically attack the reliability of the whole WADA test was definitely a bad surprise for FIS and WADA.”

What’s Next

Since Veerpalu’s legal team recently appealed the case to CAS, the drama isn’t over yet. Both sides are working to strengthen their evidence before they argue head-to-head in the independent courtroom.

The stakes are even higher for the appeal than they were for the original hearing, but the outcome of the case is unlikely to change significantly: out of all of the doping cases in CAS’s online archives from the last ten years, not a single ban has been overturned. All of the decisions by sport-specific or national governing bodies have been upheld or partially upheld, and many appeals have been dismissed outright.

Aivar Pilv, Veerpalu’s lead lawyer, recently told Estonian Public Broadcasting that more information has become available since the end of the FIS case, which he claims will buttress his arguments.

“We now clearly know FIS’s conclusions, and now we have reason to provide additional explanatory – and we believe, countermanding – arguments,” Pilv said.

But FIS may have added ammunition of its own. Dr. Inggard Lereim, a Norwegian doctor who is a member of FIS’s medical team, told several Estonian news sites that he had been threatened regarding of the case. He would not reveal the nature of the threats or even where they came from, saying that “I cannot and do not want to go into the details.”

Fussek, the FIS administrator, told the Baltic news service Delfi that she had no knowledge of any threats.

A date has not yet been set for the CAS hearing. But in many ways, the results of the case are only relevant for Veerpalu’s legacy, not to his future as a racer. In an interview with FasterSkier last November, far before the doping allegations surfaced, he indicated that he would retire and that he had no plans to race for another Olympic medal representing Estonia.

“I would like to go to my seventh [Olympics] as a journalist, or something like that,” he said.

-Nat Herz contributed reporting.

Chelsea Little

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  • chadsalmela

    September 26, 2011 at 1:37 pm

    As usual, well done article, Nat. I think most would have liked to attribute Veerpalu’s successes to accute specialization unlike any modern distance skier in the sport. Based on what you could uncover, that’s highly unlikely the case and chances of appeal at CAS being successful almost zero. I think his behavior at the time of announcement was telling, and one can read between the lines, his behavior and that of his legal team since. It’s a textbook all out assault on drawing attention away from the fact it’s pretty much impossible to test A & B positive for the substance. It’s PR work a la the early Tyler Hamilton case. You get the goofiest explanations. Too bad for Estonian skiing. Finland all over again…

  • Nathaniel Herz

    September 26, 2011 at 1:51 pm

    Thanks, Chad! However, as much as I would like to take credit for this excellent piece, it was written by Chelsea…so applause should be directed towards her!

  • highstream

    September 26, 2011 at 11:19 pm

    A very well presented, fair and apparently thorough article. Lost in the struggle is whether or not the use of HgH had anything to do with his knee rehabilitation.

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