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For the second time in two days, the Russian hacker group Tsar Team, also known as “Fancy Bear” has published private medical records from the World Anti-Doping Agency’s database — and this time, it’s information pertaining to the only two British riders to win the Tour de France, Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome.
The hackers illegally gained access to WADA’s Anti-Doping Administration and Management System (ADAMS) database via an International Olympic Committee (IOC)-created account for the Rio 2016 Games.
The group published records detailing Therapeutic Use Exemptions (TUEs), or requests, filed by the athletes and granted by International Sports Federations and National Anti-Doping Organizations that allow the use of banned substances based on athletes’ verified medical needs.
On Tuesday, Fancy Bears posted TUE forms from American athletes Simone Biles, and Venus and Serena Williams, saying that TUEs amount to “licenses for doping.”
And while TUEs present a gray area in sport — they are, essentially, a short-term allowance for athletes to take banned substances — in the case of the Fancy Bear hack, no wrongdoing has been revealed.
Biles, who had a TUE for Ritalin, was quick to respond on Twitter Tuesday, writing, “I have ADHD and I have taken medicine for it since I was a kid. Please know, I believe in clean sport, have always followed the rules, and will continue to do so as fair play is critical to sport and is very important to me.”
WADA confirmed that it had been hacked, saying, that,“access to ADAMS was obtained through spear phishing of email accounts; whereby, ADAMS passwords were obtained enabling access to ADAMS account information confined to the Rio 2016 Games.”
“WADA deeply regrets this situation and is very conscious of the threat that it represents to athletes whose confidential information has been divulged through this criminal act,” said Olivier Niggli, WADA director general. “We are reaching out to stakeholders, such as the IOC, IFs and NADOs, regarding the specific athletes impacted.”
U.S. Anti-Doping Agency chief Travis Tygart — the man who handed Lance Armstrong a lifetime ban — reacted by calling the hack “cowardly and despicable.”
“It’s unthinkable that in the Olympic movement, hackers would illegally obtain confidential medical information in an attempt to smear athletes to make it look as if they have done something wrong,” Tygart said in a statement. “The athletes haven’t. In fact, in each of the situations, the athlete has done everything right in adhering to the global rules for obtaining permission to use a needed medication.”
On Wednesday, WADA confirmed another batch of athlete data leaked by Fancy Bear — the confidential data of 25 athletes, from eight countries, including Wiggins and Froome.
For the two British cyclists, the TUEs were all for corticosteroids — steroid hormones used to treat inflammation — and all were granted by former UCI doctor and scientific advisor Mario Zorzoli.
The hacked WADA documents show that Froome was granted a TUE for the corticosteroid prednisolone in May 2013 — 40mg per day for five days leading into the Critierum du Dauphine — and again in April 2014, 40mg per day for seven days leading into the Tour de Romandie.
Both prescriptions were granted to treat EIB (exercise-induced bronchoconstriction), also known as exercise-induced asthma.
“I’ve openly discussed my TUEs with the media and have no issues with the leak, which only confirms my statements. In nine years as a professional I’ve twice required a TUE for exacerbated asthma, the last time was in 2014,” Froome said in a statement on Thursday.
At both the 2013 Dauphine and the 2014 Romandie, Froome went on to win the general classification.
In an interview earlier this year, Froome acknowledged that beyond the controversial TUE in 2014 that saw the UCI require all TUEs to pass through a committee, he’d been granted one other TUE during his career, one year earlier.
Asked if there is a gray area when it comes to doping, Froome told Scottish journalist Richard Moore, “Personally I don’t think there is a massive gray area. I think the gray area most people are referring to are TUEs [therapeutic use exemptions], using substances that aren’t banned but do give a performance gain.
“I’ve applied for two TUEs in my seven years as a professional. Each was a week long. One was [at the 2014 Tour de] Romandie, the other was a year earlier just after Romandie. For two weeks in seven years I’ve taken something for medical reasons. I feel quite strongly that you shouldn’t be taking anything that you don’t medically need.”
As for Wiggins, six TUE forms were posted by Fancy Bear, including allowance for injections for triamcinolone acetonide (Kenalog), a synthetic corticosteroid used to treat allergies, and the use of bronchodilator inhalers containing Salbutamol and the combination of Budesonide and Formoterol — medicine used to treat airflow blockage, and reduce chronic bronchitis.
- June 13, 2008 (for 12 months): Salbutamol (inhalation, two puffs, twice daily)
- December 16, 2008 (for 12 months): Salbutamol (inhalation, two puffs, twice daily); Formoterol and Budesonide (inhalation, two puffs, twice daily)
- December 18, 2008 (for 12 months): Salbutamol and Fluticasone (inhalation, 1-2 times per day)
- June 29, 2011: Triamcinolone acetone, 40mg, one-time injection, prior to 2011 Tour de France
- June 26, 2012: Triamcinolone acetonide, 40mg, one-time injection, prior to 2012 Tour de France (documentation incorrectly says for Criterium du Dauphine, however date was after Dauphine, before Tour de France)
- April 2, 2013: Triamcinolone acetonide, 40mg, one-time injection, prior to 2013 Giro d’Italia
Notes in Wiggins’ Certificate of Approval for the TUE for triamcinolone acetone injections cite a lifelong pollen allergy, as well as “nasal congestion, rhinorrhoea, sneezing throat irritation, wheezing leading to dyspnoea, eye watering, runny nose.”
The use of inhaled Salbutamol doesn’t require a therapeutic use exemption, although the permitted maximum level of the substance is 1600 micrograms over 24 hours.
Use of inhalers to treat asthma is common among cyclists. In an interview with CyclingTips, Cycling Ireland doctor Conor McGrane estimated that 40% of cyclists have used asthma inhalers.
In June, British cyclist Simon Yates (Orica-BikeExchange) was handed a four-month sanction for testing positive for Terbutaline, a bronchial dilator, a drug used to treat asthma. Terbutaline is listed by WADA as a “beta-2 agonist” — a drug that relaxes smooth muscle in the lung and dilates bronchial passages — and its use requires lung-function tests, as well as a TUE.
The team explained that its doctor had failed to submit a TUE — labeling the mishap, essentially, an administrative error. The UCI accepted that the infraction was not deliberate, but handed Yates a four-month sanction, backdated to the date of the test, causing Yates to miss the Tour de France.
Froome competed for Team Sky at the time his TUEs were granted. Wiggins competed for Team Columbia in 2008, Garmin-Slipstream in 2009, and Team Sky from 2010 through 2014.
Like Froome at the 2013 Dauphine and 2014 Romandie, Wiggins won the 2012 Tour while competing with an approved TUE.
And while that may draw suspicion, it’s noteworthy that Froome has won the Tour on three occasions, and finished second at the Vuelta a España on three occasions, without a TUE.
Also noteworthy, however — and many say problematic — is that, under WADA Code, a TUE for corticosteroids is not required out of competition. Among those to point out the need for improved oversight of corticosteroid use, out of competition, are Dr. Jeroen Swart, sports physician and exercise physiologist, and Jonathan Vaughters, team manager of Cannondale-Drapac.
Though Froome and Wiggins were operating within the rule structure defined by WADA and enforced by the UCI, the controversy around TUEs has been a hot topic of debate for several years; the public discussion around their disclosed exemptions is sure to only fuel the fire.
While TUEs are intended to be granted only for medical need, many see them as a loophole that is widely abused.
Ross Tucker, a South African sports scientist, summarized the debate around TUEs in a series of posts on Twitter.
“The hacking/TUE scandal is a litmus test for your starting ‘belief,’ Tucker wrote. “If you trust, you say ‘Doctors & Fed approved it, all above board.’ On other hand, if you’re mistrusting, then it’s just further evidence that the very people entrusted with integrity are part of the problem.
“If sport hadn’t earned itself all-time low levels of trust, then these TUE allegations would be easy to resolve. But it has, so this is right. So we have Door #1 – genuine medical issue, needs TUE, but should the athlete be competing? I’d say in many cases, ‘no.’ Like chest infection. Then Door #2 – no medical issue, so TUE is exploitation of loophole, no different to doping, which should be illegal. Either door, problems.”
However others see the disclosed private documents as a non-story. Among them are Australian doping expert Richard Ings.
On Twitter, Ings wrote, “Fancy Bears are after a smoking gun of anti doping malfeasance. All they have found to date is a bunch of standard issue TUEs. (Yawn).”
The UCI issued a statement following the publication of hacked medical data.
“The Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) shares WADA and the other Anti-Doping Organisations condemnations of cyber-attacks to release personal data. The UCI has full confidence that WADA will do everything it can to prevent any further attacks and ensure ADAMS security.
“The management of Therapeutic Use Exemptions (TUEs) in cycling is robust and fully safeguarded. The UCI TUE Committee (TUEC) is composed of independent experts in the fields of clinical, sports and exercise medicine and the coordination of the Committee is handled by the Cycling Anti-Doping Foundation (CADF), the independent body mandated by the UCI to carry out anti-doping in the sport.
“A TUE can only be granted if there is unanimity amongst the panel of 3 TUEC members, which constitutes an additional level of rigor and goes beyond the applicable international standards. In addition, the UCI is one of the few International Federations who have been recording the TUEs in ADAMS since the inception of ADAMS. Whilst this was not mandatory at the time, the UCI made that choice for transparency reasons considering that it enables WADA to review TUEs granted by the UCI TUEC.”