Is Similä a ‘Black Sheep’? Positive EPO Test Stirs Old Fears for Finland

Chelsea LittleMay 21, 20142
Finnish cross country skier Tero Similä at Lahti Ski Games 2010. In March 2014, Similä tested positive for EPO. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Finnish cross country skier Tero Similä at Lahti Ski Games 2010. In March 2014, Similä tested positive for EPO. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The Finnish Ski Association confirmed yesterday that cross country skier Tero Similä tested positive for the blood-doping drug recombinant erythropoietin (EPO), based on a test administered in March. Both the “A” and “B” samples have now tested positive, and it is up to the Finnish Antidoping Agency to recommend a sanction, which the Finnish Ski Association will administer.

Similä’s manager, Tuomo Haikola, described the result as a “big blow to us” when reached by Finland’s Kaleva news service.

Similä himself released a statement to the press:

“I have been tested on a regular basis since 1999 and during that time I have given dozens of blood and urine samples. In March 2014 the FINADA doping sample proved to be positive. I do not have a test result for any comments. I want to make it clear that this issue has nothing to do cross-country Association and the Ski Federation… After this release, I will not comment on the matter any more in public.”

Similä will also face an additional fine, because last fall he signed an agreement with the rest of the cross country athletes which included a prohibition against doping. The penalty for violating this agreement is reportedly in the six-figure range (in Euros).

Similä is a career athlete who made his first World Cup appearance in 2001, in fact because of doping. After placing ninth at World Junior Championships the prior season, Similä was competing on the Continental Cup. When six Finnish skiers were disqualified for blood doping at 2001 World Championships, new athletes were called up for the post-Championships World Cups. Similä got his first start at the end of the season in Falun, placing 74th.

Although the six disqualifications at those Championships loom large over Finnish skiing – and sport in general – it is doubtful that Similä had much contact with the athletes or system at that time, as he was still an up-and-coming athlete and not on the “A” team along with them.

He has raced fairly consistently on the World Cup ever since, and was a member of the 2006 Olympic team. Despite over a decade of racing, he never broke the top 30 on the World Cup and his most notable finishes were in relays, for instance at the 2006 Olympics where Finland placed 10th. This year, he failed to break into the top 50 in three weekends of World Cup competition and spent more time on the Continental Cup.

One of his best results of 2014 came when it counted, at Finnish National Championships. Similä, 34, placed third behind Matti Heikkinen and Ville Nousiainen in the 10 k classic. He bested Iivo Niskanen, who went on to turn in a heroic fourth-place performance in the 15 k classic at the Olympics, by eight seconds, and Sami Jauhojärvi, who went on to win gold in the Olympic team sprint, by another eight.

While Finland has tried to put the legacy of blood doping behind them, it has proven difficult. Similä’s case is not the first to revive these old tensions: in 2011, Juha Lallukka tested positive for human growth hormone (HGH). Lalluka denied having used the substance, and the Finnish arbitration board for sport overturned his ban, saying that the detection limits for HGH were unreliably set.

Lallukka was back competing this winter; his only competition in the FIS database was the same 10 k classic at Finnish National Championships, where he placed seventh.

Although both cases brought forth old prejudices about the ability of the Finns to stay clean, it does not seem clear whether or not they represent any kind of systematic doping. For instance, Similä was not part of the national team, training instead with a team based in Rovaniemi, northern Finland.

Magnar Dalen, the outgoing Finnish head coach (who is originally Norwegian) hypothesized that Similä used performance-enhancing drugs to try to earn his way onto the Olympic roster.

“I am reasonably confident that this is a black sheep, and not part of a system,” Dalen told Norway’s NRK broadcaster, according to a translation. “It’s some skier who does not belong at the Olympics, and that’s always part of these seasons. Unfortunately it always tends to be this desperate attempt near the end of a career… It is always boring, but we must distinguish between individual cases and the scandals in 2001 which were organized by the national leadership.”

What is unclear, however, is how long into the past Similä’s EPO use may reach, or if he used the drug at any other point during his career. Among other issues, the test was administered in March, so if Similä was using EPO in order to make the Olympic team his use of the drug must have extended back at least several months.

“Catching the EPO in March for the first time feels not so believable,” former Swedish star Mathias Fredriksson told the Expressen newspaper. “He should have [been caught] earlier in that case. And then the question is whether he has been tested earlier in the year. Has he been tested many times and not been caught? Then you wonder how reliable the tests are? Is it so that you can take EPO without getting caught?”

Finnish administrators were visibly frustrated with the case, which they perceive as setting them back from the significant progress they have made since the 2001 disaster.

“It’s a very tedious job, because recently Finnish cross-country skiing has been very positive,” Mika Kulmala, Executive Director of the Finnish Ski Association, told the Helsingen Sanomat.

But Fredriksson, for one, wasn’t willing to give them a pass based on recent good behavior.

“Apart from this case, I know that something ​​about the organization in Finland,” he told Expressen. “There are back some leaders who were around during the last scandal, when it was organized doping. [I] think it’s wrong that you did not delete those characters completely… It is remarkable that you do not take it more seriously, you do not shut the door completely for them. It is sad.”

Similä has previously been coached by Reijo Jylhä, although not recently. Jylhä was recently hired to replace Dalen as the national team coach.

“Most of all, it’s sad,” Jylhä told Hufvudstadsbladet, a Helsinki newspaper. “He has had a long and great career and performed equally well, though he never quite reached the top. It is sad that his career should end this way.”

Jylhä, who led the Finnish team after the 2001 scandal until 2006, said that he and fellow incoming team coach Eero Hietanen learned of the positive test the same day that the Finnish Ski Association finalized their contracts. They discussed the matter and decided that it did not affect their decision about taking the jobs, but that it emphasized the need for greater supervision throughout the Finnish system.

“The Ski Association and the athletes’ union must get athletes to undertake stronger [controls],” he said. “There cannot be athletes who are outside the target groups who we don’t keep track of. We must be able to trust anyone involved in national activities.”

Chelsea Little

Chelsea Little is FasterSkier's Editor-At-Large. A former racer at Ford Sayre, Dartmouth College and the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, she is a PhD candidate in aquatic ecology in the @Altermatt_lab at Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology in Zurich, Switzerland. You can follow her on twitter @ChelskiLittle.

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  • Train Wreck

    May 21, 2014 at 9:48 pm

    I’m surprised that I dare to leave a comment on a doping article…but here goes.

    I have thought that our current cultural approach to the problem of cheating is a bit like shooting the fire extinguisher at the flames instead of the wood. The real problem is clearly a weakness in the moral fiber of the athletes. Maybe the final remedy is for the athletes themselves to engage in the struggle of perfecting the moral foundation that the sport stands on. This means taking an active stand against doping through *example*, something equating to moral activism.

    It is my opinion that the purpose of engaging in any “life practice” such as sport is to better yourself, and eventually lead by example to pass on what you have learned. This prime purpose supersedes the desire for medals in every way. In this light it seems clear that adding the responsibility of “moral watchdog” to an athlete’s daily training regiment is inherent to the role.

  • Tim Kelley

    May 22, 2014 at 5:12 am

    TW/Patrick: To change, such as to grow more moral fiber as you say, humans need incentives. There is not much incentive to be moral with the current lack of barriers to doping. As seen here, a cheater is not deterred by anti-doping programs, as he tries to elude them. He is also not driven to moral high ground by large financial penalties (at least $130,000 according to the article). This guy takes the doping risk, because what does he have to lose? His career … yes. But so what, it’s going to be over soon anyway.

    The problem is that anti-doping has a bottom up punitive system. Only the cheater is punished. It would be much more effective it was top down.

    If the FIS and IOC had rules that if anyone was caught doping, then that person’s country would be banned from FIS and IOC sanctioned races for 5 years – the fear of that reprise would drive countries to police themselves and build, as you say, moral fiber. Fear would be the driving factor here. Potential black sheep dopers would be monitored much more rigorously by the NGB and clubs because the extent of damage the person could do would be much higher than it is now.

    Get caught doping … and your NGB and national team disappears for 5 years, fellow club members are banned from FIS races for 5 years and the doper gets punished. Fear of that such a massive fall-out would surely help grow some moral fiber in the xc racing community. But it would take moral fiber to implement such a punitive system by the FIS and IOC and NGBs. So, it won’t happen.

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