Fancy Bears: What have they told us about doping in elite sport?

Fancy Bears: What have they told us about doping in elite sport?

22/09/2016 at 21:09

As hacking group Fancy Bears exposed the medical records of more athletes on Monday, we ask the question, what does any of the leaked information actually tell us?

The short answer to that question is "absolutely nothing".

Well, perhaps not absolutely nothing. We know that a number of athletes, including some who are very high profile, have taken drugs with permission known as therapeutic use exemptions (TUEs). TUEs are for otherwise banned substances that have been prescribed by a medical professional to be taken by athletes for verified medical conditions.

According to the World Anti-Doping Agency’s guidelines, the criteria for being granted a TUE by WADA are:

  • The athlete would experience a significant impairment to health if the TUE were to be withheld;
  • The TUE 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;
  • There is no reasonable therapeutic alternative to the TUE; and
  • The need for the use of the substance with a TUE is not due to its prior use without a TUE.

So, in summary, a bunch of athletes have taken medicines which were known about by the authorities for medical conditions which they have paperwork to back up. Even if Fancy Bears claim that the use of TUEs had helped athletes win Olympic medals and were licences for doping, there is no suggestion that the athletes have broken the rules. It would be remiss, however, not to look at the scope for bending the rules in these circumstances.

Apart from that, the question of TUEs raises more issues, such as the extent to which athletes compete despite health problems and injury and the ethics of prescribing drugs to in-pain athletes. Serena Williams, found to have been granted TUEs several times in 2014 for painkillers and anti-inflammatories despite a highly successful year for the then world no.1, said on Tuesday she would not rush back to top-level tennis from injuries that marred recent tournaments.

They also add a further layer to the moral maze of performance-enhancing drugs and the extent to which athletes should expect to be able to keep TUE use under wraps. Samantha Quek, a member of the gold medal-winning GB Hockey team whose WADA TUE approval form was leaked on Monday, told the BBC that the leak compromised the health of young athletes.

Sam Quek was a member of GB's gold medal-winning hockey team at the Rio 2016 Olympics.

Sam Quek was a member of GB's gold medal-winning hockey team at the Rio 2016 Olympics.Reuters

Quek, who said the leak “violated” her, argued that “young athletes coming through will be scared to use a TUE” because of the association it will now carry with doping, but if anything, the WADA records prove the opposite – that these athletes acted within the legal framework, in these instances. Other athletes have remained silent over the issue; after all, there is no need to defend actions approved by the anti-doping authorities, is there?

There is a clear case that the exposure of athletes' medical conditions and history is a violation of their privacy; there is also an argument that if a TUE is granted – remember this is an exemption for a normally banned substance – in the interests of transparency, perhaps that information should be on the table.

Rather than further shrouding the issue of doping in elite sport in silence, maybe the only thing we can learn from the Fancy Bears debacle is that an open discussion around doping – what is allowed and what is not – is now necessary.