Whatever its methods or intentions, the revelations by ‘Fancy Bears’, which hacked into the website of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) raise serious questions.
The focus in the West has been on the criminality of the hacking.
The president of the International Olympic Committee has called the hacking “outrageous”.
If he thinks that legally sanctioning performance-enhancing drugs to top athletes was “outrageous” too, he has not said so.
Consider this: In the ideal world, US gymnast Simone Biles would have failed the drug test at the Rio Olympics for using methylphenidate. She won the gold in the women’s vault, pushing India’s Dipa Karmakar to fourth place.
But Biles was legally allowed to use the drug for her attention deficiency hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). It is a condition, she says, she has endured since childhood and has thus been granted a therapeutic use exemption (TUE).
It is also a condition that seems to afflict twice as many sportspersons as the general population of the US. Biles did not cheat — what she did was legal.
Nor did the others cheat: Venus Williams, Chris Froome, Bradley Wiggins and a steadily-emerging list of TUE candidates. It is all legal. But what is legally right can be ethically wrong.
And the governing body of international sports has a duty to be conscious of ethics too.
Among the questions that need to be answered: Has the WADA outlived its utility?
The organisation, according to Sebastian Coe, president of the international athletics federation, is “outdated and unable to catch the cheats. WADA was set up in 1999 and the world has changed.” Detection has always been a step or two behind usage, and the TUE has merely muddied the waters further.
Has the TUE too outlived its utility?
The original intention may have been noble — to make sport more inclusive, and not deny competition to those with conditions like asthma, allergies, and so on. But, as Travis Tygart CEO of the US Anti-Doping Agency has pointed out, “TUEs are a ripe area for people to try to get around the rules and take banned substances without testing positive.”
Look at the figures: In 2013, there were 636 athletes who had TUE. Next year, there were 897. Last year that figure had risen to 1330. That’s an increase of 110 per cent in two years! Either sports are attracting men and women with similar medical conditions, or the grey areas in drug use are getting increasingly darker.
A third and more fundamental question is: Should the IOC simply allow drugs in sport? After all, at every Olympics, the search is not for the most morally upright sprinter, but the fastest man on earth. And if the fastest man (or highest jumper or sharpest basketballer) got that way with some chemical help, why cavil? It is a personal choice, after all. I made this point just ahead of the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, and there was an interesting response from a vice-president of the IOC. “I have no problem with that,” he said, “But there will be a problem of access in poorer countries.” Build a better drug and the world of sport will beat a path to your door.
The hacking — it does not matter if it originated in Russia, or if it is revenge for keeping Russian athletes out of the Olympics because of their state-sponsored doping programme — has shown up the hypocrisy of the West.
The TUE is in effect ostensibly to ensure a level playground for competitors, and there is an argument here — why should asthmatics or diabetics be discriminated against? But it doesn’t take much effort to misuse the TUE system. In 1999, Tour de France cyclist Lance Armstrong won the first of his seven titles (since rescinded). When his sample was tested retrospectively, it was found to contain a banned substance. Armstrong got himself a backdated prescription for the drug and a TUE was granted after it was accepted that the traces of the drug came from a cream used to treat saddle-soreness. Armstrong confessed to this in 2013 while finally admitting to his secret life as a drug cheat.
WADA cannot be unaware of the manner in which the TUE can be misused. Given that, the body is either incompetent or complicit, and neither is acceptable. I suspect too that not enough is known about the performance-enhancing qualities of drugs used medically.
The athlete cannot be held responsible for taking advantage of loopholes in the system. Competition is fierce, and any edge — especially one granted by the rules — is welcome. Especially since many athletes feel that clean ones are at a disadvantage in a world dominated by the chemically savvy.
The list of athletes granted TUE is impressive, and the hackers have promised more names. Already the British authorities have told double-gold winner at Rio, Mo Farah to prepare to find his medical details in the public domain. Farah has said that he remains in contact with Alberto Salazar, the controversial coach who is under investigation by the USADA.
Venus Williams has Sjogren’s Syndrome, an autoimmune disease which affects the moisture-producing glands, and also leaves her numb and tired. Sania Mirza’s father had verbally asked the All India Tennis Association to follow up on the hacking disclosures. Sania and Rohan Bopanna lost to Venus Williams and Rajiv Ram in the semifinals of the mixed doubles, thus losing out on a medal at Rio.
The hackers ask a pertinent question, though. How could world class athletes all have similar problems at the Olympics?
A former head of the Russian anti-doping service has described US athletes as “invalids”.
“I have the impression that we are dealing with invalids because they are prescribed incredible combinations of potent drugs. Three of them are narcotics, for the distribution of which one can receive a long prison sentence both in Russia and in Europe,” he says.
“I would consider banning all TUEs in competition,” sports scientist Ross Tucker told the Guardian.
“I know it is a hardline stance. But what would be the downside if people with asthma cannot compete? Conceptually to me, that is fine. Because unfortunately the efforts to be inclusive with people who have valid medical issues have created a loophole that is being exploited by sophisticated dopers.”
WADA faces a crisis of credibility. Athletes have to deal with the question of ethics. We cannot shut the doors on those with genuine problems, unless we say, “Tough luck, that’s life” and leave it at that. We cannot give them an unfair advantage either.
It is no comfort to Dipa Karmakar that she lost to an admittedly fine performer, but one using an officially-sanctioned boost. The hackers have started a necessary debate.