Another day, another scandal

  • 2011-04-13
  • By Jared Grellet with Rokas M. Tracevskis

QUESTIONABLE METHODS: Olympic champ Andrus Veerpalu has the sports authorities’ support, who say testing methods are at fault in the failed drug test results.

RIGA - Major drug scandals have shaken the sporting communities of Estonia and Lithuania in the course of the past week, bringing varied reactions from the respective authorities. In Lithuania, European women’s reigning marathon champion Zivile Balciunate was, on April 5, handed a two year ban from the Lithuanian athletics federation for doping, while two days later the Estonian Ski Association announced that double Olympic champion Andrus Veerpalu tested positive for the use of steroids back in February.

While the announcement concerning Veerpalu came following the athlete’s retirement from the sport, the ban handed down to Balciunate has been particularly damaging, as it effectively rules her out of next year’s London Olympics. She has also been ordered by the Lithuanian athletics federation to give back the gold medal she won at last summer’s European Athletics Championships in Barcelona. It was the first major win of her career, becoming the first Lithuanian woman to win the event.
The news in the past week will not come as a complete surprise for Balciunate, who would have been bracing herself for some form of repercussion having already been suspended by her national athletics federation back in October 2010.

The action was taken after the Lithuanian recorded abnormal levels in the ratio between the male sex hormone testosterone, and epitesterone, in a test taken immediately following the run that earned her the gold medal at the European Championships. While both are natural occurrences in women, abnormal readings led to suggestions that they had been administered in the body artificially.

Balciunate denies that she willingly cheated, instead blaming the high levels on a drug which was prescribed to her by a gynecologist to assist problems with her menses. However, her claims of innocence are falling on deaf ears at the Lithuanian Athletics Federation after she refused to have the same sample tested again by an independent laboratory.
Now aged 32, London potentially may be Balciunate’s last shot at Olympic glory. With this in mind, she is now using her right to appeal the ban by taking her case to the Court of Arbitration for Sports in Lausanne, Switzerland. Even if she does win the case, it does not guarantee her spot in the Olympics, with the Lithuanian Olympic Federation still reserving the right as to whether or not to select her on their Olympic squad.

Unlike Balciunate, Estonian sporting authorities are standing by their athlete, with both the Estonian Ski Association and the Estonian Anti-Doping agency supporting Veerpalu’s claims of innocence.
Following a race in Otepaa, Estonia on Jan. 29, Veerpalu submitted to a regulation drug test which, when returned last week, showed that Veerpalu’s A and B samples contained an illegally high level of a permitted growth hormone. Juuri Laasik, who is the doctor for the Estonian Ski Association, did, however, add that the B sample that was tested by an agency in Cologne, Germany was unofficial.

Laasik has publicly blasted the German testing agency, bringing into question their methodology and the validity of the results, with the current method being used to test growth hormones having been in use for less than a year and still open to criticism from specialists.

Originally, Veerpalu had intended for the Nordic Ski World Championships held in Oslo, Norway back in February to be his swansong in the sport. Interestingly, however, Veerpalu, now aged 40, changed his mind about competing in Oslo, opting to instead retire on the eve of the event, citing knee problems and age as the main factors. In hindsight of the drug results, some in the media are now speculating as to whether or not there was something more sinister behind Veerpalu’s decision to retire ahead of schedule, opting for a small regional race to be his last, rather than saying farewell to his fans on arguably the sport’s biggest stage.

Veerpalu won the Olympic gold medal in the men’s 15km cross country event at Salt Lake City in 2002 before repeating the feat in Torino four years later.
It is not just Estonian authorities who are lending their support to Veerpalu, but seemingly the entire country. A number of unofficial Facebook pages have been set up in support of Veerpalu, who is something of a national icon in a country which rarely tastes sporting success in the international arena. One group in particular, called “Usume Andrus­ Veerpalu,” (support Andrus Veerpalu) had at the time of writing attracted 68,229 fans.

If the drug results are to stand, then Veerpalu, like Balciunate, has the right to try his case with the Court of Arbitration for Sports in order to clear his name and an otherwise celebrated career.