Serena Williams was a target.

Photographer: Chris Trotman/Getty Images

Hack of Anti-Doping Agency Poses New Ethical Questions

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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The World Anti-Doping Agency's database has been hacked, and a group that has sarcastically adopted the name "Fancy Bear" -- a designation given by the cybersecurity industry to a suspected Russian government-sponsored hacking operation -- has published data about the agency's approval of the use of banned substances by some U.S. athletes for medical reasons.

It would be easy to imagine that Russian intelligence would order a team of hackers to break into WADA. The organization has accused Russia of running a government-sanctioned system of doping in sports. Its highly convincing findings have led to a ban on some Russian athletes at the Rio Olympics and to the ouster of the entire Russian team from this year's Paralympic games. Russian officials protested that other nations were no better, but these objections -- which were in line with a Russian tradition of whataboutism -- were swept aside. So, from a cui bono point of view, it makes sense that Russians would try to discredit WADA.

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The hackers' use of the name Fancy Bears is a nod to that line of reasoning. The name is often used for Advanced Persistent Threat 28 -- also known as the Sofacy Group of the Tsar Group -- which has specialized in trying to obtain political and military data from North Atlantic Treaty Organization and post-Soviet countries. The group was implicated in the recent hack of the Democratic National Committee.

It has never used the name to brag about its exploits, though: Stolen DNC files were published by someone calling himself Guccifer 2.0 and claiming to be Romanian. A coming-out like this would be a bit brazen for a government-sponsored team. But perhaps Russia is changing its methods, exchanging the benefits of secretly obtaining sensitive data for the satisfaction of publicly taunting Western adversaries. If that's the case, such hacks are going to be an increasingly important nuisance for the U.S. and its allies -- and a more efficient propaganda method for the Putin regime. 

WADA says it's been "informed by law enforcement authorities that these attacks are originating out of Russia." On a certain level, it would have been counterproductive for an intelligence agency to publish the stolen data. The Russian sports authorities are working with WADA at the explicit orders of President Vladimir Putin, who doesn't want any more bans of the country's athletes. And the hack, according to the WADA statement, is "greatly compromising the effort by the global anti-doping community to re-establish trust in Russia." Yet the Kremlin could be more interested in casting WADA as a villain, both for the propaganda value and in the hope that the organization itself would become the target of an investigation.

So far, major Western media have only reported on the breach and its supposed origin, but not on the substance of the leak. Doing the latter would be far more ethically questionable than discussing the leaked DNC files: The documents involve top athletes' medical histories. For that same reason, WADA and other international sports organizations haven't commented much on the hack. The International Olympic Committee told the Russian news agency TASS that it saw the hack as "an attempt to smear clean athletes." WADA itself only said it was "reaching out to stakeholders" about the breach. 

And yet the information is out there. It will be discussed and it will sow doubt. The documents do raise questions about whether WADA sanctions the medical use of banned substances.

In the case of the four U.S. athletes whose WADA files have been leaked, including Venus Williams and the basketball player Elena Delle Donne, the drugs sanctioned by WADA for so-called therapeutic use exemptions fall into two groups: Corticosteroids, used to treat allergies, skin conditions and breathing disorders, and amphetamines used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. In sports, the banned corticosteroids are used to improve athlete recovery after severe strain. Cyclist Lance Armstrong's first failed doping test was for corticosteroids.

ADHD drugs such as Adderall and Focalin increase alertness and mask pain and fatigue. If more athletes in the WADA database are officially allowed to take them, one has to wonder how many of them actually suffer from ADHD, a condition that is said to affect 4 to 5 percent of U.S. adults. 

To eliminate suspicions, WADA would need to discuss its procedures for allowing the use of certain drugs for medical reasons. The agency, however, will be reluctant to open that discussion. In that sense, the leak is not going to do its instigators much good -- but it will move the world a step or two toward the Putin regime's cynical vision: Everyone is corrupt, everyone is playing games, and the only reason Russians get caught all the time is that the West is waging a war on them.

The only way to counteract this depressing picture is more openness. Distasteful as it would be, WADA must explain -- with the affected athletes' permission, or in general terms, without naming names -- why it permits the use of specific banned substances.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net