Athletes should just say no to flawed anti-doping system

Some thoughts while waiting for the lowlife Russian hackers whom Russian officials say have no ties to the government (hoo-hah!) to follow through on their announced intention to dump the next bunch of Olympians’ private medical records in an effort to convince people that athletes are doping even when they have violated no anti-doping rules:

1.  Not even the CIA is impervious to hackers.  But having the same hackers break into the World Anti-Doping Agency’s record-keeping system at least twice in the last two months suggests its design and security provisions are lamentably weak – or that someone within the system is leaking either the documents or a way to access them.

I asked WADA and the International Olympic Committee about those issues Tuesday.  Neither answered the specific questions.  WADA responded only with its statement acknowledging the attack, and the IOC with this comment that addressed the issue in general terms:

“The IOC is cooperating with WADA and has full confidence in their approach. At the same time the IOC is checking their systems to take any necessary preventive measures. All these actions are happening in close cooperation with WADA.”

2.  Anyone who doesn’t believe this attempt to discredit leading U.S. athletes – Simone Biles, the Williams sisters and Elena Delle Donne were the first targets – has government backing only needs to see this Wednesday tweet from the Russian embassy in the United Kingdom:


The embassy tweet talks of “Released” WADA files.  That’s a funny way to describe hacking.

This clearly is part of a Russian strategy to retaliate for the revelations by a Russian whistleblower of sample manipulation to benefit Russian athletes at the 2014 Sochi Winter Games and for the McLaren report’s conclusion of a massive state-sponsored doping program in Russia.

3.  The latest hack inadvertently raised questions worth considering about the permissions – known as therapeutic use exemptions, or TUEs – that allow athletes to use banned drugs for demonstrated medical need if, under WADA rules:

*A) there is no medication to treat the problem that is not on the banned list,

*B) the therapeutic use “is highly unlikely to produce any additional enhancement of performance beyond what might be anticipated by a return to the athlete’s normal state of health following the treatment of the acute or chronic medical condition.”

Part B is obviously tricky, given that the drug in question is on the banned list because it is considered performance-enhancing.  Scientists can and will contend that some drugs will aid performance by doing more than just cure illness.

The documents posted by the hackers showed Biles and Delle Donne tested positive in Rio for substances covered by TUEs, meaning the positives were not sanctioned.  The hackers’ web site revealed no positives for the Williams sisters, just a number of TUEs.  The hackers claim to have seen documents showing "dozens" of U.S. athletes had tested positive.

Biles said in a tweet Tuesday she had a TUE for a drug she has been using for many years to help with ADHD.  Delle Donne acknowledged the hacks with a tweet including ironic thanks for showing people she had violated no rules, but she did not comment on the particular substances.  However, she suffers from chronic Lyme disease, and her TUEs cover substances commonly used to treat that illness.

Some people argue that it is too easy to obtain TUEs.  The process has several phases, with national anti-doping agencies, international sports federations and WADA all involved in reviewing evidence of a need for the exemption.  You can’t just submit a letter from a doctor.

According to the latest WADA numbers available, for 2014, the United States Anti-Doping Agency reported a much higher percentage of positives (known as “adverse analytical findings“) covered by TUEs than any of the 36 anti-doping agencies in the world reporting 10 or more adverse findings (22 TUEs on 51 AAFs.)  What the numbers don’t say is how many of those cases involved foreign athletes tested by USADA in competitions held in the USA or how many repeat cases there were.

For instance, according to the hacked documents, Biles unsurprisingly tested positive for the same TUE-covered substance four times in Rio.  Were those, hypothetically, in the USADA numbers for 2014, they would count as four different TUEs.  So the number of TUEs in the WADA report does not equal the number of athletes getting them.

And the WADA numbers also don't say if the anti-doping agency was testing both elite and non-elite athletes, as USADA does and includes in its report to WADA.

(WADA has not responded to questions seeking explanation of the numbers.)

4.  Are U.S. athletes more likely to seek TUEs – or given better advice on the process – than athletes in other countries?  The numbers might make it seem so.

In 2015, USADA - which has at least two physicians review each TUE request, with a third brought in to break a tie - acted on 145 TUE requests from elite athletes, with 136 granted, eight denied ands one listed as pending.  But we have no numbers on TUE requests and denials from other countries for comparison.

Could some people try to abuse the TUE system?  Of course.  But there are supposed to be several levels of sign-off to help prevent such abuses.

The WADA numbers show Russia with no TUEs on 114 positives in 2014.  Of course, we now know that Russia then was engaged in a doping program that included having its national anti-doping agency help cover up positives, so maybe the Russians thought that was more efficient than seeking TUEs.

Are U.S. athletes purer than the driven snow?  Hardly.  For years, the only difference between doping in the U.S. and doping in the Soviet Bloc was Americans did it piecemeal and individually while the old East Bloc athletes were doped in an organized and mandatory process.  Let’s not forget several top U.S. sprinters have been banned for doping in the past decade, including three who ran in Rio.  Doping, whether individual or state-run, still is cheating.

But it has been mainly Russians caught in advanced retesting of samples from the 2008 and 2012 Olympics – Russia has 26 of 98 identified positives so far, with Kazakhstan (8 positives) second and Belarus (7) third on that list of infamy.  (Funny how Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus are all former Soviet Republics.)

5.  The overriding point in all this: as U.S. Olympic Committee CEO Scott Blackmun has said repeatedly in recent months, the global anti-doping system is broken.

It includes unconscionable conflicts of interest, which included IOC vice-president Craig Reedie (who remains an IOC member although his executive board term ended in August) serving as WADA president.  And now the IOC dismay that the WADA-initiated McLaren report called for a ban on all Russian athletes in Rio.  Are they in this fight together or each defending a bailiwick?

The TUE regulations are just one of the many complicated, probably unworkable pieces in a well-intentioned but impossibly compromised and Sisyphean effort at doping control.

It is sad that this has led a group of ethically and morally bankrupt Russian hackers to pervert reasonable questions about flaws in the system by violating the privacy of individuals who have violated no rules.

So why would anyone want to cooperate with a system that cannot afford protection for personal information?  Imagine what would happen if every athlete just said no to taking part in an anti-doping program that can wind up exposing them to unwarranted criticism and lingering damage to their reputations.

There is an old Latin proverb that says, "Who will guard the guards themselves?"  Many of the anti-doping guards aren't accountable to anyone.  Until that changes, until the system changes, why should the athletes be accountable to them?

(Correction: An earlier version of this story said Craig Reedie's IOC term ended in August.  Reedie's executive board term ended then.  He remains an IOC member.)