PARIS — Somewhere in Russia, computer hackers must be congratulating themselves on a well-executed con.
By stealing and then publishing the private medical files of more than 120 international athletes from a World Anti-Doping Agency database, the self-described “Fancy Bears hack team” has diverted attention from Russia’s systemic abuse of banned performance-enhancing drugs in sport, the biggest doping scandal since East German officials fed powerful steroids to teenagers during the Cold War.
The hackers’ tactic, used by tricksters everywhere, of waving one hand so people forget what the other is doing, has worked spectacularly. In July and August, sport was focused on how to punish Russia for a government-sanctioned program of doping and deception detailed by successive WADA probes. Russian track and field athletes, with one exception, missed the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro as a result, and Russia was banned outright from the Paralympic Games.
But now, in part because of the hackers’ mischief-making, the spotlight has shifted to non-Russian athletes whose data was stolen and onto WADA itself, left red-faced by the electronic intrusion.
Instead of focusing single-mindedly on how to wean Russia off its cheating addiction and protect Russian youngsters from being strong-armed into regimens of needles and pills, sport has been fed a red herring, sucked into debate about whether the global anti-doping system is fit for purpose. Olympic leaders meet this Saturday to discuss WADA’s future.
If they listen carefully, perhaps they’ll hear bears in the background, chuckling.
The hackers must not have the last laugh. It’s time to call time on their scam.
For starters, the stolen info they’ve published is not, as they claim on their website, “sensational proof” that non-Russian athletes have been doping with WADA’s backing. Quite the opposite: It’s proof that sport has a system in place that allows athletes, like the rest of us, to take medicines we need.
Take, for example, Kathleen Baker, who won a relay gold medal and individual silver in Rio. The American swimmer has Crohn’s disease, a chronic inflammation of the digestive tract that causes persistent diarrhea, bleeding, weight loss, cramps and other symptoms.
Swimming’s governing body granted Baker medical waivers to take anti-inflammatory steroids that normally would be banned for athletes in competition. Her waivers were among more than 200 stolen and published by the Fancy Bears. Others got waivers to treat asthma, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and other recognized medical conditions. Several have waivers allowing them to carry emergency syringes of adrenaline, a stimulant banned for athletes in competition but which can be life-saving for sufferers of severe allergic reactions.
Such people “really have to have adrenaline handy; if you don’t you can die,” Ken Fitch, an Australian sports doctor with long experience of the waiver system, said in an interview.
Such exemptions, in short, bear zero relation to the elaborate, hard-core doping schemes that operated in Russia, since exposed by two WADA-commissioned investigations, with designer cocktails of banned steroids, dirty athletes’ drug-test samples made to disappear and replaced with supposedly clean ones, and the Russian FSB security agency part of the plot, seemingly finding a way to pop open what were meant to be tamper-proof sample bottles.
Also important: A large slice of the Fancy Bears’ leak is outdated, including waivers from 2007, 2008 and 2009 for drugs that then were more closely regulated but which athletes can now take freely within reason, because they are no longer considered potentially performance-enhancing if not abused.
These include common asthma medications. Of the 127 athletes whose information was stolen and released so far, 53 had prescriptions for asthma inhalers and anti-inflammatory steroid injections into joints, not muscles. Today, these treatments don’t require waivers, because WADA’s rules have evolved with science.
In short, in many cases, the Fancy Bears are peddling moldy fluff, not proof of anything untoward.
WADA, based in Canada, says it has been told by law enforcement agencies that the hacks originated from Russia. Russian authorities dispute the allegation. Tony Brenton, formerly Britain’s top diplomat in Moscow, says Russia has a record of disinformation campaigns designed to distract from its own behavior.
“I’m sure that all this hacking, whether officially sanctioned or not, is aimed by patriotic Russians to demonstrate that they are not the ones guilty of doping,” Brenton said in an interview. “They are very good at putting up these rival narratives designed to obscure what are obvious truths.”
A few of the Therapeutic Use Exemption certificates raised eyebrows and necessary questions about whether the waiver system is too easily gamed by unscrupulous athletes seeking banned drugs for performance enhancement, not medical need.
Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins found himself having to explain waivers for corticosteroid injections in 2011, 2012 and 2013. He says they were to prevent chronic hay fever. Fitch says that of all of the leaked TUEs, “that’s one of the ones that really, really concerned me.”
“I’m not saying that he did it for performance enhancement, but it was a TUE that wouldn’t stand scrutiny today,” he said.
Still, it’s a giant leap from there to the far bigger and more pressing problem of doping run amok in Russia.
So beware of those bears.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester. See his work at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/john-leicester