The Olympics Cold War has a new chapter and it’s titled “Fancy Bear.”
The World Anti-Doping Authority says that’s the name of a Russian cyber-espionage group that hacked into its records and released information on four top American athletes: Serena Williams, Venus Williams, Simone Biles and Elena Delle Donne.
There’s more smoke than fire here, as the athletes were revealed to have used drugs that they had medical permission for. But don’t expect Fancy Bear and groups like it to retreat into hibernation. And don’t expect the debate over drug use among all Olympians to vanish for another four years. It might just be heating up.
Fancy Bear presented its findings on Tuesday along with a cage-rattling statement: “After detailed studying of the hacked WADA databases we figured out that dozens of American athletes had tested positive. The Rio Olympic medalists regularly used illicit strong drugs justified by certificates of approval for therapeutic use. In other words they just got their licenses for doping. This is other evidence that WADA and IOC’s Medical and Scientific Department are corrupt and deceitful.”
“Tested positive” is less scandalous than it sounds, as there’s a deliberate process for allowing use of these “strong drugs.” The justification “by certificates of approval” – technically called Therapeutic Use Exemptions (TUE) by the governing bodies – has a basis in the rules.
WADA explains TUEs this way: “Athletes may have illnesses or conditions that require them to take particular medications. If the medication an athlete is required to take to treat an illness or condition happens to fall under the Prohibited List, a Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUE) may give that athlete the authorization to take the needed medicine.”
“It’s unthinkable that in the Olympic movement, hackers would illegally obtain confidential medical information in an attempt to smear athletes to make it look as if they have done something wrong,” U.S. Anti-Doping Authority CEO Travis Tygart said in a statement. “The athletes haven’t. In fact, in each of the situations, the athlete has done everything right in adhering to the global rules for obtaining permission to use a needed medication.”
Biles posted her own statement on Twitter, saying she was diagnosed with ADHD as a child, hence her need for medication. “Please know,” she wrote, “I believe in clean sport, have always followed the rules, and will continue to do so as fair play is critical to sport and is very important to me.”
So what’s the big deal? Some hacktivists revealed information that isn’t damning; so what?
The incident is disturbing for a few reasons:
First, it indicates there’s at least one group that’s capable of finding out medical information and leaking it. That’s a major privacy issue for doping authorities to urgently address, and it will give pause to any Olympian who is understandably fearful of personal medical information becoming public.
It also suggests more is coming. The McLaren Report, which found systemic and state-sponsored Russian doping leading up to the Rio Games, stirred a cauldron of anger in Moscow and elsewhere in Vladimir Putin’s nation, and that might have led to this attack.
Russian runner Yuliya Stepanova, who blew the whistle on the doping program, was also the victim of an attempted hack recently. That prompted the following statement from former U.S. State Department terrorism expert Scott Stewart: “The investigation that the runner [Stepanova] and her husband incited, and the mass suspension of Russian athletes from the Summer Olympics that it precipitated, was a black-eye for the Russian government. And Moscow does not take kindly to embarrassment.”
Olivier Niggli, WADA’s director general, said on Tuesday the hack is “greatly compromising the effort by the global anti-doping community to re-establish trust in Russia further to the outcomes of the Agency’s independent McLaren Investigation Report.”
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov strongly denied any involvement in the Fancy Bear hack.
Still, even if the leaks have nothing to do with Russia, the public relations boon to Putin is clear: it’s ammunition for the argument that the Olympic establishment is geared to help American athletes. While this news will be viewed by most Americans as “nothing to see here,” it could be viewed in Russian circles as, “See, everyone uses something.”
The Fancy Bear website proclaimed, “We will start with the U.S. team which has disgraced its name by tainted victories. We will also disclose exclusive information about other national Olympic teams later.”
That brings us to the other dicey subject, which is whether TUEs are always used properly.
Many athletes have preexisting conditions that must be treated. Biles, as mentioned, has been diagnosed with ADHD and thus received a TUE for methylphenidate, more commonly known as Ritalin.
But it’s easy to see how some athletes would have a motivation to use a drug that would otherwise be banned and employ it under the guise of a doctor’s exemption. There’s an argument to be made that banned substances should be banned for all athletes who are in or near competition dates. Once that standard is bended – even for the noblest of reasons – the slope can get slippery.
So although this particular story has no smoking gun, a rash of leaks and information about TUEs would bring a bigger (and perhaps needed) discussion about whether there should be stricter limits on what athletes use and when and why.
American swimmer Lilly King’s famous finger-wag at Russian counterpart Yulia Efimova drew a lot of favor in the U.S., but there are plenty of people outside American borders who are aching to wag a finger right back at the Americans.
More Olympics coverage from Yahoo Sports: