Three US Olympians – world-renowned gymnast Simone Biles and tennis superstars Venus and Serena Williams – were granted medical exemptions that allowed them to use drugs otherwise banned in competitive sports for their performance-enhancing effects, according to data released by Russian hackers and reported in The New York Times.
“Today we’d like to tell you about the US Olympic team and their dirty methods to win,” the cyber-espionage group Fancy Bear, which The Times identifies as possibly the same group that hacked the Democratic National Committee servers, wrote on its website, posting links to private medical documents it obtained after hacking into the World Anti-Doping Agency’s servers.
WADA confirmed the breach in a statement.
“Let it be known that these criminal acts are greatly compromising the effort by the global anti-doping community to re-establish trust in Russia,” Olivier Niggli, director general of WADA, said in the statement.
According to the hacking group, the newly released information is evidence that WADA and the International Olympic Committee are “corrupt.”
However, it’s pretty common for athletes to receive exemptions – known in sports parlance as therapeutic use exemptions – for certain substances, and in this case, the athletes whose information was released applied through appropriate channels to use these medications.
The WADA list of banned drugs is long and includes substances used to treat allergies, asthma, pain, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, along with substances like steroids. Many people take these medications daily to treat common conditions, so it’s no real surprise that some athletes need them too.
“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,” Travis Tygart, president of the US Anti-Doping Agency, told The Times. “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.”
It’s worth pointing out that the Russian athletes barred from the games for doping were involved in a complicated, state-sponsored, very much not legally approved doping regimen.
Simone Biles, who came home from the Rio 2016 Summer Games with four gold medals and one bronze, said on Twitter that she has ADHD and takes medication for it.
Having ADHD, and taking medicine for it is nothing to be ashamed of nothing that I’m afraid to let people know.
— Simone Biles (@Simone_Biles) September 13, 2016
It’s true that medications like Ritalin and Adderall – which are used to treat ADHD, a very real medical condition – can have some performance-enhancing effects, just like those used to treat allergies and asthma. These effects include the ability to sustain effort for extended periods of time (which is more performance-enhancing for athletes such as cyclists) and a potentially better ability to focus.
In some sports organizations, such as Major League Baseball, many athletes receive exemptions to use ADHD medication. While some have said that high ADHD rates in baseball seem suspicious, others say that young athletes may come from populations that are more likely to have attention issues – and that we may be better now at identifying and treating attention disorders.