Mati Alaver is a legend in Estonia.
Alaver, 58, is credited with building his country’s cross-country ski program from scratch following Estonia’s independence in 1991. Over the last two decades, its athletes have won more than 15 major medals at World Championships and Olympic Games—not bad for a country with a population of 1.3 million.
Alaver is known not just as a knowledgeable and successful coach, but also as a pitchman who found the sponsor money to turn the Estonian Ski Federation into a powerhouse. “He’s a great public speaker,” an Estonian ski official told FasterSkier last year. “One day he will go to politics.”
Over the past year, however, Alaver has been tested—first, by the retirement of Jaak Mae, Andrus Veerpalu, and Kristina Smigun, who were Estonia’s core cross-country skiers over the last 15 years, and second, by Veerpalu’s positive drug test in the spring of 2011 for the use of human growth hormone.
The Estonian team—whose athletes formerly competed for the USSR—has always operated under a cloud of suspicion, and Veerpalu’s test only confirmed what many suspected. After an International Ski Federation panel convicted Veerpalu, the case moved on appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), where it should be resolved in a manner of weeks.
Alaver’s current position with the Estonian Ski Team is unclear; he said that if Veerpalu was found guilty, he would step down, but according to the Estonian media, Alaver is on administrative leave pending the CAS decision—and he continued to travel with the Estonian team through last winter.
During the Tour de Ski in Italy in January, FasterSkier caught up with Alaver to discuss his work with the Estonian ski team, and the future of the program. Alaver speaks German, but not English; our questions and his answers were translated by Christian Flury, a Swiss coach.
The interview has been edited, and condensed.
FasterSkier: What’s your coaching role now? Are you doing less administrative work and working more directly with athletes?
Mati Alaver: Estonia is a small country, so you need to be multifunctional, working with sponsors, working with organizations, working with organizing committees, and working with athletes. You have to do everything, because there’s no way to build up huge infrastructure with the team.
FS: It’s not like the Norwegian team, where you have a head of the wax staff, etc.?
MA: Completely different.
FS: What are your goals for the team?
MA: After the big names retired, it’s time to build up a new team of young athletes, and also a new service staff, new trainers, new coaches, everything. For sure, it’s a three- or four-year project, at least. The goal is, for the future, that Estonia comes back into the nations that win medals. That’s our long-term coaching goal.
FS: Following the retirement of Veerpalu and Mae, which athletes are you working closely with now? Has this given you an
opportunity to work with younger athletes?
MA: I’m personally coaching Algo Kärp and Karel Tammjärv.
FS: How did you get started in the sport? I’ve heard you’re from an out of the way village that was described to me as the Wyoming of Estonia.
MA: When I was 13, I started skiing. I had a really good coach when I was young. He was the reason I went to Tartu University and started working as a ski teacher and ski coach.
I finished university in 1976. I worked for 20 years as a lecturer in science and research. In ’76, I also started working as a coach for small kids, and in ’83 I was first hired as assistant coach for the national team. I started working with Andrus and Jaak in ’92.
FS: Did you have mentors as a coach? Who did you learn the most from?
MA: When I started working at the university, it was back in the Soviet era, and there were some coaches [that I learned from]—Victor Ivanov, Alexander Gruschin, Nikolai Lophukov. When Estonia was free in 1992, I started to go to a lot of conferences and seminars in Finland. On the World Cup, I met [former Norwegian coach] Inge Bråten.
I’ll never forget his speech about the Olympics, because the Norwegians had been so strong in Albertville in 1992. In Albertville, in the top five [in the men’s 30 k], there was one other guy, and that was bad for Norway.
Inge said the next goal is that the top four or five must be Norwegian. They need to be one, two, three, four, five. I thought, ‘that must be a crazy man who would say something like that.’
I learned from Inge that if you want to reach top results, you need to have top goals. In every sector, you need to improve one percent, or even zero-point something, to get better and better, because you start on the same line.
FS: So, you have influences from Norway, from the Soviet system and from Finland—how did you take those and turn them into an Estonian system, with Mae and Veerpalu?
MA: I realize now I was lucky to learn about being methodical and systematic from the Soviets; from Finland, the endurance and the physiology; and from Norway, how to build up structures, in terms of how to organize a team.
As a junior, Jaak Mae was in Norway at a ski school for one year, and he learned a lot from them about how the Norwegian system worked, and he brought that back. Then from ’95 until ’02 or so, we collected all the scientific articles from Norway and worked with them.
In the end, you have to take something from the Soviet system, from Finland and from Norway and then put them together and make the best out of them, because there are not that many athletes, not that much money or anything [in Estonia]. So, take the best of what you can, because there are only a few top athletes. Then focus on the development of them.
FS: Now for the hard question: A lot of Western athletes, coaches, and spectators have been skeptical of the Eastern European and Estonian training methods. And since Veerpalu tested positive for human growth hormone, some people have taken that as confirmation of their beliefs. What would you say to them?
MA: We all live in a free world, so everybody’s free to think what they want. It’s a myth to say that Eastern Europeans are the dopers. There’s Ben Johnson, Marion Jones, Taylor Hamilton—it’s not the right way to look at it, to say East and West is different.
I believe it’s a false-positive test, and we’re going to the CAS.
FS: Building your Estonian team back up was already going to be a challenge, once Veerpalu and Mae retired. Has this made it more difficult, and will you be able to bounce back?
MA: Sure—it’s difficult.
FS: The approach and the system for Veerpalu and Mae was very successful; with other athletes, it’s been more mixed. Do you think there have to be changes in the Estonian system to produce more successful athletes? What would those be?
MA: For sure, we have to come up with another system, because cross-country skiing is still endurance, but you also have to be fast now, with the mass start and sprinting. Jaak had no chance in mass start, no chance in sprint. Individual races—that was his best. So, you have to adapt, and now you have some athletes that can do that. We have to go with the times.
Nat Herz is an Alaska-based journalist who moonlights for FasterSkier as an occasional reporter and podcast host. He was FasterSkier's full-time reporter in 2010 and 2011.