Fancy Bears – Oh, bother…

I think it’s just a coincidence that quite a few of my stories have lately included animals. So, after horses and sharks, let’s talk about bears…

How can one possibly prove that the hackers were from Russia? Nowadays, Russia is blamed for everything and it seems to be in the trend.

Vitaly Mutko, Minister for Sports, Russian Federation

A Russian hacker group known as ‘APT28’ or by the even more colourful name ‘Fancy Bears’ has leaked medical information concerning several Olympic athletes from a number of countries. All these athletes are alleged to have been granted ‘Therapeutic Use Exemptions’ (TUE) by WADA. The group asserts that they have used ‘spear phishing’ (thanks to my best friend for explaining that term to me…) to gain access into WADA’s ADAMS database, found ‘shocking details’, and are about to show the world ‘how Olympic medals are won’. Well, are they…?

What is a TUE?

To understand what’s going on, let’s first take a look at what TUEs really are. Athletes can apply for a TUE if they need to take medication that would include certain prohibited substances under the annually updated prohibited list of the World Anti-Doping Code (WADC), in cases of a temporary or chronic illness. Each application will be assessed individually, based on the circumstances of each specific case, and the athlete generally has to seek a TUE before beginning to take the medication. It needs to be verified that (1.) the athlete is suffering from a medical condition which would deteriorate significantly if being denied the medication, (2.) that the use of the substance is not likely to cause a performance enhancement, (3.) that there is no reasonable alternative to its use, and (4.) that the medical condition was not caused by the previous use of illegal substances.

So basically, if you are caught with a prohibited substance and you have a TUE for that specific substance in your specific case at that specific time, it’s OK. Only then! Otherwise it’s Doping.

TUEs are known to have been abused in the past, with athletes trying to have medication exempted that they did not need or taking the medication longer and in higher doses than originally allowed to (see Lance Armstrong…). Nonetheless, it is a good thing that such a mechanism exists. Anything else would force athletes to either resort to the illegal use of specified substances, take significant leaves from their sport, potentially endangering their careers, or risk their health in an irresponsible way.
It should be clearly stated, that applying for or using a TUE is not a Doping offense. It is not even close, as the athlete has officially disclosed what he or she intends to take, AND has given a valid reasoning for its use, AND has been allowed to use it by the relevant authorities.
So, what the Fancy Bears have found out (and revealed) until now is that apparently even athletes can get sick and require medication. Wow, who would have guessed…

Who are the Fancy Bears?

It’s hard to tell who the Fancy Bears really are. They are from Russia, that much we do know, and there are reports that they are working for Russian intelligence services, directly supported by or even under the control of the Kremlin. But at this point, we do not know that for sure. Although, well, it’s not just ‘reports’ as in ‘rumour’. These are reports by the CIA, the German Bundesamt für den Verfassungsschutz and several other intelligence agencies in a number of countries, which makes it a bit more ‘official’. The group was apparently behind attacks on the governments of Georgia, Poland and Hungary, the German Bundestag, NATO, the OSCE, the White House and several other institutions. Contrary to chinese hacker groups which tend to exercise attacks mainly with the purpose of achieving economic gains by stealing intellectual property, this group seeks to acquire intelligence exclusively from political, military and other institutions that could potentially be helpful for Russia’s political position.
The reactions by Russian politicians, sports officials and media have been very revealing indeed. They denied any involvement and any connection between Fancy Bear and the Russian government, before, just a few seconds later, asserting that the leak shows how WADA and western countries apply double standards.

In any case, whatever the involvment of the Russian government or Russian sports organisations in all of this: what this development really doesn’t do, is helping any Russian athletes. What the Russian Olympic Committee, the Sports Minister, and all those involved in Russian sports should do right now, is rebuilding their own structures, trying to normalize relations to some specific IFs and the international sports community in general and rebuild some, at least some level of confidence in their athletes’ performances. What they are constantly doing is quite the opposite…

What’s next?

This ‘affair’ (if you want to call it that way already…) is pointing to several sensitive issues. First of all, as stated before, it is imperative that we have something like the TUE-system. Cheating by abusing the current system is extremely risky as you, as an athlete, would have to disclose that you are taking a specified substance which will put you in the focus of anti-Doping authorities even more. Some cases where athletes abused their TUEs are indeed known, but Fancy Bears have neither claimed, nor provided evidence to support such a claim, that any of the athletes implicated in the recent leak ever tried to abuse the system.

The data provided by athletes, doctors, WADA and others involved for the ADAMS database also needs to remain confidential. We are talking about sensitive personal data including whereabouts, medical data, etc., a large portion of which could be used for several criminal purposes. Simone Biles, who was one of the first athletes implicated by Fancy Bears as having received a TUE, publicly acknowledged that she was suffering from ADHD, that she’s receiving medication to cope with the effects, and that neither having ADHD nor having to take drugs against it should be anything to be ashamed of. While that is true, nobody should be in a position to demand of athletes to publicly discuss their medical history. As well as sport needs to be protected against cheaters so need clean athletes to be protected against false accusations and anybody included in ADAMS against misuse of their personal data.

What we should talk about and keep an eye on is whether anything can be done to improve the current system of TUEs. It’s not flawless, of course not. And there may be cases where a TUE has been wrongly granted. There might also be a discrepancy of TUEs being granted or denied in different sports. This is something for WADA, the IOC, the IPC, IFs and other stakeholders to take a closer look at and to take the necessary steps. If all of them are willing to do that… That might be another part of the story and also definitely worth a closer look. But they should be able to do it regardless of any Bears growling behind their backs.

In the end let’s just take a look at some of the athletes affected. Most of them are Americans, with Simone Biles and the Williams Sisters being the most prominent ones. That’s no real surprise as the group explicitly stated that they wanted to target especially US athletes. The others are British cyclists Chris Froome and Bradley Wiggins alongside three other Britons, five Germans, Danish swimmer Pernille Blume and one each from the Czech Republic, Poland, Romania and…Russia. Among the Germans is Robert Harting who is well known as being rather outspoken against Doping in athletics and also actively supports whistleblower Yuliya Stepanova and her family. And in that regard, I can’t wait to see the name of the single Russian athlete implicated here. Who could it possibly be? I have noooo idea at all…

Oh, and referring to that quote from Vitaly Mutko in the beginning of this post: yea, how could you possibly prove it? Maybe by seeing that the group posted the files on their own homepage, claiming responsibility for the hack themselves? But that’s just a suggestion… or as another famous member of the Ursidae-family would put it: ‘Think, think, think!’

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