Wada hacking scandal: debate turns to the use of powerful legal drugs

Condemnation of hackers into Wadas confidential database has been followed by questions regarding the processes of applying for and taking certain therapeutic remedies

On it goes.The Russian cyber-espionage group Fancy Bears had promised to publish more confidential records of more athletes, obtained by hacking into the World Anti-Doping Agencys databases. And last night the latter are good to their word, posting the confidential medical records of over a dozen more top athletes, including the British cyclists Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome, proving the banned substances for which they had received a therapeutic utilize exemption( TUE ). It followed the first leak of information detailing the TUEs Serena and Venus Williams and the gymnast Simone Biles had received. Froome and Wiggins are yet to react but the Williams sisters and Biles insistence that they had done nothing wrong has been staunchly backed by Wada and the tennis and gymnastics authorities.

Nonetheless, on social media questions about whether there is more here than meets the eye have been winging their way round the carousel. Some have doubted whether Serena Williams needed to take powerful medication such as prednisolone, methylprednisolone, hydromorphone, oxycodone and prednisone, for instance, while others have asked what the Fancy Bears data says about TUE use and how widespread it may be.

When it comes to the Williams sisters, however, one of the worlds top anti-doping experts tells the Guardian that the Fancy Bears data suggests no indication of wrongdoing. The first thing that struck me was that nothing struck me, says Richard Ings, who as a former president of the Australian AntiDoping Agency and senior executive of the ATP tennis tour is better qualified than most to judge. Serena, for example, had exactly the sort of drug often for very short periods you would expect for soft tissue injuries and was granted approval.

But can we trust the process? In tennis, at the least, Ings believes we can. There is no doubt that TUEs can be abused, he says. Its like any other facet of anti-doping. You have antidoping agencies that tip off athletes before testing and you have anti-doping agencies that have TUE policies that are flexible at best. But tennis has an independent medical review board, which involves three physicians reviewing each TUE request from a players physician and where appropriate awarding their usage with strict limitations.

The Williams sisters and Biles aside, the wider question of whether widespread TUE usage is appropriate is one that is increasingly debated within anti-doping and sports science circles. The respected sports scientist Ross Tucker, for instance, is therefore of the opinion that what started off as a legitimate practise the idea that athletes with asthma, say, getting TUEs so they could negate the disadvantages they faced has been corrupted. I would consider banning all TUEs in competitor, Tucker tells the Guardian. I know it is a hard-line posture. But what would be the downside if people with asthma cannot vie? Conceptually to me, that is fine. Because regrettably the efforts to be inclusive with people who have valid medical issues have created a loophole “thats been” exploited by sophisticated dopers.

Tucker points to the high use of corticosteroids, which are given to athletes to help them breath better yet can also be performance-enhancing. If the latter are banned, unfortunately you would end up discriminating against people with asthma, he says, but, if you define asthma as a breathing disorder which avoids you from accessing your maximum capacity, you could argue that EPO should be legal because people dont have high blood values too.

Then there is the rumoured widespread use of cortisone, particularly in cycling, to reduce weight while maintaining power, something Tucker calls the holy grail in the sport. Its an anti-inflammatory but it works because it negates the inflammatory pain that you normally get when you exercise and so there is no signal to back off. He points out a further fretting issue with TUEs: in the past some athletes, such as Lance Armstrong, have been allowed TUEs retrospectively to escape possible forbiddings, as the American did after testing positive for corticosteroids in 1999.

Some, like the triathlete Jodie Swallow, have called for all TUEs to be made public. Yet that raises privacy concerns. If you have a female athlete going through IVF why should the world know such a private issue, one figure in anti-doping told the Guardian.

Ings concurs. I know of athletes with hepatitis who are taking low dosages of steroids to help control it and even athletes with cancers, he says. All sorts of things you dont want on a front page of a Russian website.

Ings believes the Fancy Bears hacker is an extension of a political beat-up from disgruntled people in Russia which is clearly targeting Wada. Its trying to draw the conclusion that Wada is complicit in allowing athletes to dope to deflect from the fact that Russia was complicit in allowing athletes to dope, he says. This is not about corruption in Wada. It is about conformity and competency. I dont think Wada has anywhere near the bandwidth to review all these TUEs and to make sure they are being applied properly.

He calls for much more public info by sport and country about which and how many TUEs were received, approved, dismissed and a proper compliance framework to audit the system. Tucker, who is a stronger critic of the status quo, concurs. People who have asthma are told to start swimming, because it forces-out them to breathe in a controlled style and it helps symptoms, so the fact so many swimmers have asthma is not an indication of something dodgy and nefarious, he says, but we dont know because there is no baseline data.

Imagine if we knew how many swimmers are asthmatic by country? Or, say, endurance runners? Or which developing groups were all on it? It would help us understand whether the use of TUEs is get out of hand.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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