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


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