Within hours after the release by Russian hackers of U.S. athletes’ doping results, Victor Conte, the Bay-Area based figure at the center of the BALCO scandal, a guy who knows what’s what when it comes to the doping scene, sent out a note Tuesday to a wide email circle. It said, in part, “This is gonna get ugly.” Gonna get ugly?! This is ugly from the get-go. And it’s likely to stay ugly for the foreseeable future.
This hack operates on a staggering number of levels. There are so many threads to pull: here, there, seemingly everywhere. The whole thing is designed not just to stir public opinion but to stir up nothing less than chaos in world sport and, perhaps, more — to agitate and antagonize governments in public as well as private diplomacy.
Following World Anti-Doping Agency reports over the past several months that asserted widespread and state-sponsored doping in Russia, about a third of the Russian Olympic delegation, including virtually the entire track and field team, and the entire Russian Paralympic squad ended up banned from Rio 2016. The Paralympics are still ongoing.
On Tuesday, WADA confirmed that its database had been breached. At issue: confidential medical records of athletes who took part in last month’s Rio Olympics.
WADA further said that hackers gained access via an International Olympic Committee-created account.
The perpetrators, accordng to WADA: Fancy Bear, a Russian entity suspected as well of breaching the Democratic National Committee’s computers.
On Monday, Fancy Bear released information on four American athletes: the gymnast Simone Biles, basketball standout Elena Delle Donne and the tennis stars Serena and Venus Williams.
The documents show that each of the four had permission to take prescription drugs. In some cases, those drugs were used during the Games.
Some of the drugs contained banned substances.
But nobody is facing a doping case.
The reason: the anti-doping rules specifically say that there can be exceptions for certain medicines. Athletes can use a variety of stuff that might otherwise lead to a positive test if, one, they get a doctor’s note and, two, they file the appropriate paperwork.
That paperwork is called, in the jargon, a “therapeutic use exemption.”
To emphasize: there is no suggestion that any of the four have done anything wrong.
U.S. officials have linked Fancy Bear to GRU, the Russian military intelligence agency. For what it’s worth, the Russian government said Tuesday it had no connection to Fancy Bear.
This is the backdrop. From there, the super-obvious starting place:
Within Russia if not elsewhere, many will be tempted to draw the conclusion that the Americans, who won the Olympic medals count in Rio going away, are doping.
It is already widely believed that considerable numbers of U.S. athletes take advantage of TUE exemptions.
To stress: obtaining a TUE is within the rules.
It is also the case that, as in many things, perception is as important than reality, if not more so. Indeed, a Fancy Bear statement declares that U.S. athletes “got their licenses for doping.”
Tension is high between the IOC and WADA over the Russians. This is sure to add to that. To reiterate: the hack came through an IOC-created account. If you want to appreciate the delicious irony there, or maybe the hackers’ knowing instigation, go right ahead — a WADA hack through an IOC account. Who to blame, and for what?
Legally, do any of the four athletes, American citizens all, have recourse in the U.S. or Canadian court systems (WADA is based in Montreal) for money damages now that private medical records have been breached? Who is responsible for not safeguarding the sort of records that everyone knows — if you have ever been to even one American doctor’s office — is supposed to be private? For this sort of breach, what might be an appropriate remedy?
Then there another super-obvious follow-on:
Every single sports federation and national Olympic committee anywhere and everywhere in the world ought to be wondering: is my data safe?
Then there is the timing:
In mid-August, details emerged about the hack of Russian athlete and whistleblower Yulia Stepanova.
Next week WADA plans a post-Rio “think tank” to explore how it is the anti-doping campaign got into this crack, as well as others. Fancy Bear: “We will also disclose exclusive information about other national Olympic teams later.”
But, to start, there’s the central fact: these are Americans.
So why these four? Could it have anything to do with the fact that three are African-American while Delle Donne earlier this month disclosed she is gay and engaged to be married? Maybe these facts mean nothing. Or maybe it's naive to pretend otherwise.
Biles, moreover, carried the U.S. flag in the Rio Olympic closing ceremony.
The Williams sisters? When Maria Sharapova, the Russian tennis star, who carried the Russian flag into the London 2012 opening ceremony, is in the midst of a two-year ban for meldonium?
Sharapova’s appeal is due to be decided in early October. And WADA has walked back the rules in a number of other meldonium cases because of uncertainty over how long the stuff, which is made in Latvia and is designed to help patients with certain heart-related issues, stays in the body.
Biles acknowledged after the leak that she takes Ritalin or its equivalent for ADHD. It is "nothing to be ashamed of,” she said in a tweet.
At the same time, it would be a huge surprise if hackers didn’t intend for a parallel to be drawn — and, importantly, distinctions, too — between her and U.S. sprinter Justin Gatlin.
Gatlin has — unfairly — been made into the poster guy for U.S. Olympic scene doping. Truth: he is far more a victim of circumstance.
So: Biles takes Ritalin (or, again, its equivalent). Gatlin took Adderall for ADD. It’s naive once more to pretend someone looking for connection would not see something there.
At the same time:
She gets nothing. He got a year. Why the difference? How can any sort of “fair” system allow such discrepancies? Returning to the Sharapova matter and meldonium: same question.
This is not just about American athletes, meanwhile. It’s about the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, too.
USADA chief executive Tygart, who is a very smart guy, has arguably made himself over the course of this year into the loudest and longest voice for an outright Russian ban.
This would thus seem to be as much about an attempt to embarrass Tygart as it is the four athletes.
In a statement, Tygart said, “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.”
Please. It’s not unthinkable. If revenge is a thing, it’s totally rational if not foreseeable.
Finally, this, and this is where you have to really wonder how this is going to end up.
If none of this had come to pass, if WADA had been left alone, WADA — this is the dead-bang truth — can help the Russians.
In the context of getting back onto the track, for instance: what do the Russians want if not need? Answer: to get complaint again with all the rules so that Russian athletes can compete normally.
For its part, WADA wants, maybe even needs, to get the Russians compliant. And as soon as possible.
The tough sell is getting the rest of the world to believe the Russians are compliant.
That just got a lot, lot tougher.