SII Focus 24th January 2018

Fancy Bears’ claims get crazier as PyeongChang 2018 approaches

Fancy Bears today alleged that Scandinavian countries are guilty of an ‘institutional conspiracy’ to gain widespread therapeutic use exemptions (TUEs) for asthma drugs; that sporting bodies have failed to follow up whereabouts failures; and that Berlinger sample bottles are susceptible to breaking. The claims are designed to show that countries are flouting the doping rules ahead of the PyeongChang 2018 Olympics which begin on 9 February. However, none of the allegations are based on fact.

Asthma

Fancy Bears points to an article in Norwegian newspaper Verde Gang, in which the Norwegian cross-country ski team doctor, Petter Olberg, states that between 50% and 70% of the team suffer with asthma. Fancy Bears alleges that this ‘looks like an institutional conspiracy by the Norwegian Olympic Committee and national sports federations’. It isn’t.

Scientific research has found that elite athletes are more prone to asthma than the general population. John Dickinson of Kent University found that 70% of the British Swimming squad suffered from asthma. Dickinson found that elite athletes suffered from Exercise Induced Asthma (EIA), which is different from that suffered by between 8% and 10% of the general population. ‘The chlorine environment in pools is believed to be part of the reason for the very high EIA levels for high-level swimmers, while cold air can also be a trigger, boosting numbers for road cyclists and the likes of cross-country skiers, with about half of the latter group having the condition’, reported The Guardian in 2014.

Fancy Bears mentions the 2015 case of Martin Johnsrud Sundby, a Norwegian cross country skier, whom it accuses of taking ‘close to 10 times higher’ the amount of salbutamol allowed by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). Not only is this inaccurate, it would also be likely to cause serious health complications if it were true.

The CAS decision (PDF below) mentions two samples taken from Sundby at 1.340 μg/mL and 1.360 μg/mL, above the permissible WADA limit of 1.0 μg/mL. Ten times the permissible limit would be 10.0 μg/mL. It is understood that salbutamol raises your metabolic capacity, but also raises your baseline heart rate. A salbutamol level of 10.0 μg/mL in urine suggests a massive dose that would be likely to induce tremors, dizziness and possibly even a heart attack.

There are legitimate concerns about athletes seeking to gain an advantage by taking salbutamol at above the levels permitted by WADA. It is understood that due to the pharmacokinetics of salbutamol, taking larger doses does not make it more effective against asthma, which suggests that athletes may be taking such doses for other reasons. Analysis of cyclist Chris Froome’s sample indicated salbutamol at a concentration of 2,000ng/ml, twice more than that permitted by WADA for inhaled salbutamol. But this is not what Fancy Bears has focussed on.

The TUE system

Fancy Bears also alleges that the Swedish Olympic Committee (SOK) sought a TUE for its junior athlete, Rasmus Moberg, to take asthma medication. The evidence for this is an email sent by Sweden’s Olympic team Manager asking if it needs to send a doctor’s certificate for asthma medication to the International Luge Federation (FIL).

Salbutamol is permitted by WADA rules (without the need for a TUE) when inhaled up to a limit of 1,600 micrograms (mcg) over a period of 24 hours and no more than 800mcg over 12 hours. Therefore, it is not clear from the email if Moberg needs a TUE in the first place.

Whereabouts

Fancy Bears also alleges that anti-doping organisations have not investigated ‘whereabouts’ violations, pointing to two instances where athletes were notified about a first whereabouts failure as examples of ‘double standards’. This allegation shows a lack of understanding about how how WADA’s ‘whereabouts’ requirement works.

Under WADA’s Anti-Doping Administration and Management System (ADAMS),  athletes selected to be part of a Registered Testing Pool (RTP) are required to file their location for one hour each day three months in advance (although this can later be amended). If there are three instances where Doping Control Officer (DCO) cannot locate them at their stated location – or if they fail to correctly file whereabouts data – three times in one year, they face a two-year ban. As both examples cited by Fancy Bears involve a first ‘whereabouts’ filing failure, no further action is required.

Berlinger bottles

Fancy Bears also alleges that an incident at the Rio 2016 Olympics also underlies the ‘low quality’ of bottles produced by Berlinger to store athlete samples. Its evidence for this claim is a notification letter that an athlete ‘damaged the watertight plastic bag with the absorbent pad for the bottle A of his urine sample’.

The letter doesn’t mention that the sample bottle has been compromised, only the plastic bag holding the bottle containing the athlete’s A sample. Fancy Bears points to a 18 January Russia Today article detailing ‘leaked’ emails detailing issues with the Berlinger sample bottles used in Rio. It appears that the emails were leaked to RT by Fancy Bears and to nobody else.

The evidence published by Fancy Bears today doesn’t back its claims that there were issues with the Berlinger bottles, and only RT has seen the emails allegedly outlining issues with the bottles at Rio 2016, so it is difficult to draw any conclusions from its news article. However, one of the main allegations in the McLaren Reports was that Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) was able to break open and reseal sample bottles. If there are issues with the Berlinger sample bottles, as Fancy Bears suggests, then that would support McLaren’s finding that the FSB were able to open and reseal the sample bottles. Another own goal.

Clutching at straws

Nothing published by Fancy Bears today supports the claims made on its internet site. They indicate a lack of understanding about how anti-doping works in practice and, in similarity to allegations made last week, reveal more about the political motives behind the organisation.

In early hacks during 2016, Fancy Bears was careful to include allegations involving Russian athletes. However, there was a clear focus on exposing athletes from ‘western’ nations, as the table below from September 2016 illustrates. Its latest allegations, focusing on ‘Anglo-Saxons’ and ‘Scandinavians’, appear to follow this trend.

Following our coverage, Fancy Bears has stopped communicating with The Sports Integrity Initiative and instead has focussed on leaking documents to news organisations financed by the Russian State, such as RT. This shows that the organisation is less concerned with exposing doping and corruption in sport than it is with finding news organisations that are receptive to its message.

Fancy Bears has ignored any allegations involving Russia. It has not examined the 11 pages of documentary evidence on Russian doping contained within the Independent Person (IP) Evidentiary Package that backed Richard McLaren’s two IP Reports for WADA. It has ignored the extraordinary evidence contained in Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov’s affidavit. It has ignored evidence that Russian Masters athletes flouted a ban on international competition by competing at the Open Baltic Masters last year.

After a gap of six months, the fact that Fancy Bears has made two allegations in the last month suggests an attempt to disrupt the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, which begin on 9 February. If it wanted to suggest a conspiracy, perhaps it would have been better focussing on why the IOC plans to announce its final list of invited Russians a day before the CAS is due to rule on the appeal of Russian athletes against their life bans from the Olympics. However as shown above, Fancy Bears appears to be clutching at straws.

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