Time for open talk about doping
By Mikael Pentikäinen
One of the most memorable days of my career as a journalist was in early 2002. As editor-in-chief of the Finnish News Agency STT I was invited to an event organised by the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) in Tikkurila. The subject was the investigation into the use of banned substances in competitive skiing.
The STT was a party to an investigation that the NBI started, following suspicions that skiers had obstructed justice in connection with the STT doping scandal. The legal process continues in the Helsinki Court of Appeals. The next decision is expected soon.
On that Monday morning I went to the NBI along with lawyer Petteri Sotamaa. The NBI people spent the whole day going through the details of what their investigation had uncovered. The police had done an impressive job.
After the presentation we spent two days familiarising ourselves with the 2,000 pages of material. There were 1,000 pages of interrogations. In the evenings I wrote stories with the intention to publish them as soon as possible once they were fact-checked.
On Wednesday as I was leaving Tikkurila, the main investigator, Inspector Pauli Huuskonen, said that with regard to the investigation, I was under a gag order;
I was not allowed to tell anybody about the matter. It is hardly in the job description of an editor-in-chief of a news agency to sit on news, so the following weeks were difficult – especially as bits of information were emerging elsewhere.
Finally, after many phone calls, Huuskonen lifted the gag order.
STT was allowed to publish its stories. The Helsingin Sanomat archive contains a full-page story headlined "[Kari-Pekka] Kyrö suspected of smuggling hormones".
I also wrote about hormone sales, skiers’ medical programmes, and the use of plasma expanders before the 2001 Lahti games when many members of the Finnish team were caught for using performance-enhancing substances. Stories spread around the world.
It has been estimated that the publicity sounding the doping scandals surrounding Finnish competitive skiing has reached the proportions of the Winter War, but this time the publicity was negative.
The NBI material shows clearly that Finnish championship skiing is infested with a strong culture of doping which was not born in Lahti: it was simply exposed there in a flash.
The doping scandal, had its origins in a story reported by STT, and especially the events in Lahti in 2001, when numerous members of the Finnish team were caught, have shed light on many oddities in Finnish competitive skiing.
This Saturday the Helsingin Sanomat monthly supplement Kuukausiliite contains an article with further information on matters that are sources of pure amazement.
Digging in the dirt have been journalist Jouni K. Kemppainen along with film director Arto Halonen. Halonen’s documentary Sinivalkoinen valhe (literally translated "The Blue and White Lie", though the producers AFP are promoting the film internationally under the title "When Heroes Lie") will premiere in cinemas in October.
The story in Kuukausiliite says, among other things, that the Koljonvirta Hospital in Iisalmi had been the hospital of choice for the Finnish Ski Federation in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It is there that many top skiers are suspected of having undergone blood transfusions. In the evenings there were skiers’ cars parked in the yard, and in the morning blood was found on tables and floors.
The topic remains a sensitive one. Hardly any of the employees of the hospital have wanted to talk about it.
Matti Kauppinen, the head physician of the hospital at the time, was also a member of the Ski Federation’s team of experts for coaching – apparently dyed-in-the-wool skiing fan.
Kauppinen was once reprimanded by the Parliamentary Ombudsman for giving blood transfusions to people other than the ones for whom the bags of blood were ordered.
The case in which the Ombudsman gave the ruling occurred shortly before the World Championships in skiing in 1978. The Finnish team did well in the competition.
Blood tanking was not banned until 1985, which means that the procedure was not actually a doping violation when it took place.
The article in Kuukausiliite also describes how journalists continue to be avoided like angry wolves at the headquarters of Finnish skiing know-how – the Vuokatti Sports Institute.
It is hard to get interviews with big names in skiing from past decades. If someone happens to agree to an interview, as if by accident, the responsibility is immediately passed on to the listener.
Nevertheless, some skiers are not afraid to open up. "One athlete had some very painful experiences about it, possibly even pressure, to take part in blood tanking", says former skier Veijo Hämäläinen.
The Kuukausiliite story also tells about the strange collaboration between the Ski Federation and the pharmaceutical company Orion. Between 1996 and 1997 Orion produced an intravenously administered fluid for the doctors of the Finnish Ski Federation, which was intended to accelerate recovery after exertion. A Ski Federation doctor denies that the new medicine would have been used to mask the use of EPO hormone, or erythropoietin.
The Finnish Medicines Agency later investigated the actions of Orion and reprimanded the company in the summer of 2001. However, the possible crime had expired, and Orion is understandably loath to discuss the matter.
When reading the Kuukausiliite story it becomes apparent that there are many people involved in competitive skiing in Finland who know much, but who generally do not want to say anything. A wall of silence continues to surround the history of skiing.
It is an unfortunate state of affairs and continues to cause persistent mistrust toward skiing as a sport.
It would be best for the new generation of skiers, and for the whole sport of skiing, if the old piles of muck could be cleared away, and if the Finnish people would be told the truth. This would make it possible to make a fresh start.
Those involved in the sport of skiing – coaches, maintenance personnel, and skiers – owe the Finnish public a thorough cleansing. They also owe it to the children and young people who want to compete in skiing and to try to get to the top.
Many Finns love skiing, and they want to feel an appreciation for their masters. This sensation would grow stronger, if the table, which has been soiled with blood and pharmaceuticals, would finally be cleared with the help of the facts.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 1.9.2012
The writer is the Editor-In-Chief of Helsingin Sanomat
Previously in HS International Edition:
Sports doping: Medicines Agency asks pharmaceutical company for more information on ties with Ski Federation (3.9.2012)
MIKAEL PENTIKÄINEN / Helsingin Sanomat