Fancy that! Cyber-hackers open a can of worms


Earlier this week, Russian hackers Fancy Bears leaked the medical records of several American Olympians, including gymnastics sensation Simone Biles and Serena Williams. The group have sought to expose the widespread (and they would claim unfair) use of TUEs or Therapeutic Use Exemptions, which allow athletes to take substances that would otherwise be banned, in order to treat certain illnesses or conditions. Fancy Bears have also threatened to leak the medical records of several prominent British sportspeople, including cyclists Chris Froome and Bradley Wiggins.

While many sports fans in America expressed outrage at the leak, I believe this is partly a case of cognitive dissonance. The United States like to see themselves as standard bearers for clean sport, while Russia is often cast as the enemy, even though American sprinters like Justin Gatlin, Tim Montgomery and Marion Jones were found to have been doping during their careers. Many fans were unhappy at the recent revelations because they were confronted with the possibility that the anti-doping regulations under which American athletes operate are not as cut and dried as they had previously thought. If Fancy Bears had been an American group publishing the medical files of Russian athletes, many fans who have been up in arms would no doubt be singing a different tune.

This is not to say that any of the athletes mentioned in the leaks have done anything wrong, but the system seems easy to manipulate for those intent on bending the rules. Many athletes are not just known for their sporting prowess, but have entire brands and businesses built on their good name. In order to preserve their reputation, some athletes will go to great lengths to keep their misdemeanours a secret (think Lance Armstrong, another American). 

In an article by CNN on the subject, it was noted that exemptions are ‘‘only granted if no unfair advantage is given to the athlete,’’ which leads to an important question. If these substances didn’t give athletes a boost, why would they be banned?

Much of the motivation for these revelations is political. It is not surprising that the first targets of Fancy Bears were gold medal-winning American Olympians. It could be the case that WADA, the World Anti-Doping Agency, felt that being transparent about TUEs could lead to a loss of trust in elite sport among supporters, even if all the procedures were above board. However, the leaks have left WADA open to the charge that they have turned a blind eye to the issue. As Matt Dickinson points out in The Times, the overall use of TUEs went up by 48 per cent between 2014 and 2015.

While many athletes will understandably be outraged at the actions of Fancy Bears, who have had scant regard for the confidentiality of the medical information, it has opened a thought-provoking debate about the greyest of grey areas in sport. The issue needs to be addressed.

Alex Bowmer

Image: Mike Blake/Reuters


Consistency the most impressive trait of all

Serena Williams’ victory over Swede Johanna Larsson at the US Open saw her secure her 307th triumph at Grand Slam level, surpassing Martina Navratilova and drawing level with Roger Federer. While Federer’s powers seemed to have waned over the past few years, Williams is still looking imperious, and she will be looking to reach another milestone – becoming the first player to win 23 Grand Slam singles titles (she currently holds the record along with Steffi Graf).

This latest Major has provided considerable cause for optimism among British tennis fans, who have been resigned to Andy Murray being the nation’s sole representative in the latter stages of a big competition. Despite her elimination at the hands of Anastasija Sevastova, Johanna Konta has shown this year that she can compete with and outclass some of the game’s most promising talents. Kyle Edmund has the weapons to be a force on the big stage for many years to come, while Dan Evans is finally realising the potential that was untapped throughout his early 20s.

However, it seems that in this country players who experience an upturn in fortunes having gone off the rails are admired far more than someone who has consistently applied themselves in their career. This was seen most clearly with the story of Marcus Willis, who has openly admitted that he lost his way in the game, began drinking far too much and eating badly. The endearing nature of his resurgence is perhaps explained by the fact that the majority of fans can sympathise with becoming despondent or demotivated. However, while his journey is a compelling and necessary story to tell, it is the careers that are defined by consistent improvement and progression that are the most incredible of all. In the modern era, there is no better example than Serena Williams.

Alex Bowmer

Image: Darron Cummings/AP