'Gray area’: Fresh Fancy Bear hacks show athletes testing doping rules to the limit

'Gray area’: Fresh Fancy Bear hacks show athletes testing doping rules to the limit
Armed with athlete medical records furnished by the Fancy Bear hacking group, Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine has revealed a number of “questionable” medical practices, and blatant legal loopholes athletes use to defeat existing anti-doping regulations.

The nuanced 4,000-word investigation shows that authorities are a step behind in combating every means of doping – whether it is keeping up with the latest illegal substances, tracking down the competitors’ whereabouts out of season, or bringing a case against athletes the regulators suspect to be cheating, but whose guilt they cannot prove definitively.

But a large section is dedicated to athletes taking advantage of the system, without explicitly breaking the rules. The research is based "Declaration of Use" (DOU) forms regularly submitted by international athletes, in which they indicate substances they have taken over the previous week, which have been handed over by Fancy Bear.

“[Der] Spiegel is in possession of the DOU forms submitted by dozens of American athletes, including cyclists, soccer players and track-and-field athletes. They show that in the run up to Rio, athletes took pretty much everything that was available on the legal market,” write the authors of the piece, which has four bylines. “There are weightlifters who take milk protein to build up their muscles, tennis players who use acylcarnitine to improve their concentration and triathletes who swear by fish oil, for no discernible reason. Some DOUs are rather questionable.”

It is clear that much of the intake is not to address any deficiencies or potential illnesses, but to gain an advantage.

“Most of the substances listed by athletes in their DOUs are allowed. But it is nevertheless a gray area because the consumption of such medications has become so excessive. Most athletes seem to follow the strategy of taking as much as possible. They swallow all manner of substances in the hope of seeing some sort of benefit.”

While this may only be violating the spirit of the doping regulations, taking several of the substances may well be regarded as outright cheating in the future.

“The transition from such legal performance enhancement to actual doping is sometimes rather fluid. World-class athletes spend a significant amount of time searching for new preparations and methods that aren't yet on the list of banned substances and practices,” write the authors.

One such example is Dexamethasone, a steroid that is used to treat allergies, inflammation and altitude sickness, but has been proven to improve athletic performance in academic studies. It is not banned by WADA out of competition, and shows up in the records of Allyson Felix and Sanya Richard-Ross, Olympic Gold-winning US sprinters.

Dexamethasone is, however banned in competition, but apparently there is a way of circumventing that too.

Like other glucocorticoids it is “prohibited when administered by oral, intravenous, intramuscular or rectal routes.”

The solution? Iontophoresis. Even most professional athletes do not usually administer drugs through electrodes attached to their skin – unless it is to bypass a poorly worded rule.

The article states that ahead of the Rio Olympics, a doctor from the US professional basketball league, the NBA, wrote to the county’s anti-doping agency, USADA, about whether procedure was cleared. Having studied the regulations USADA approved dexamethasone iontophoresis.

There is nothing to suggest that getting “dex” through an electric current is any less cheating than ingesting it orally, yet until the regulations catch up – and this may take years – athletes will take advantage. One only needs to follow the rise and fall of meldonium among professional athletes to see the process.

The authors merely use the one drug as an example, and there are dozens more, involving thousands of athletes, and this is just level one regulation-skirting, before getting into such issues as therapeutic use exemptions (TUE) – virtual doctor’s notes that allow some athletes to take substances that are banned for others.

The Western media has painted Fancy Bear as a pro-Russian hacking outfit, whose leaks have been designed to take attention away from the accusations of state-sponsored doping leveled against Russia by WADA last year. But whatever their motivations or origin, they have cast light upon the conveniently ignored aspects of international competition, and shown that the doping picture is anything but black and white, with Russia at the heart of all that is wrong.

There is now that more information out there about doping, and its “gray areas” than ever before. Whether all the cards being out on the table will lead to anything more than the current sanctions against Russia, is another debate.