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Hackers Release Medical Records Of U.S. Olympic Athletes

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

U.S. Olympians, including gymnast Simone Biles and Serena and Venus Williams, are the latest victims of Russian hackers. A group calling itself Fancy Bear broke into the computer systems of the World Anti-Doping Agency. Then they published several American athlete's confidential medical data, including drug test results and documents showing which banned drugs they had been cleared to take for medical reasons. And the group says this is just the first batch of records it will publish.

For more on this, we have Christie Aschwanden. She is the lead science writer for the news website FiveThirtyEight. Hi there.

CHRISTIE ASCHWANDEN: Hi, nice to be here.

MCEVERS: So on their website, these hackers accuse the U.S. Olympic team of using, quote, "dirty methods to win." In the case of Simone Biles, for example, the documents show she tested positive for a banned substance while she was in Rio. But they also show that she had something called a therapeutic use exemption. What is that?

ASCHWANDEN: Yeah, so a therapeutic use exemption, or TUE, is basically a note from your doctor saying that the athlete is taking the drug for legitimate medical reasons and not to enhance performance. So it's really, you know, a document saying that it's medically necessary.

MCEVERS: How rigorous is the process for getting approval to take a prohibited substance?

ASCHWANDEN: Well, you know, it sort of varies. I think as we've seen in the recent doping scandals, different national anti-doping agencies handled things differently. But basically the doctor has to fill out some paperwork, submit it to the anti-doping agency. And so it's really up to the doctor's discretion, I would say, to make the decision of whether medical necessity is met here.

MCEVERS: From your reporting, do you have a sense that there's overuse or abuse of the system?

ASCHWANDEN: Well, you know, it's really hard to say because we don't know how many TUEs there are out there. Back in May, I examined some data that WADA had released from 2014. They released all the testing results from that year.

And what I found there was that only about 1 percent of all the tests that were done came up positive. And of those positive tests, about 10 percent of the athletes had these TUEs. So that means that about 10 percent of people that are testing positive have this sort of note from their doctor, but what we don't know is how many people have these notes who, you know, aren't being tested positive.

MCEVERS: Right. In response to this hack, Simone Biles wrote on Twitter that she has ADHD and that she's taken medicine for it since she was a kid. I mean athletes hand over a lot of medical information to the anti-doping agency. Have there been concerns about hacks or leaks before this?

ASCHWANDEN: Absolutely, and this has actually been a concern among a lot of athletes. If you're participating in the anti-doping program, you know, if you're an Olympic athlete or in some professional sports as well - they take part - you basically have to enter into a database your whereabouts at all times, your contact information.

You know, in these cases, the TUEs, you know - if you're taking a drug that that is banned, there have been cases, you know, of people taking drugs that they - might be embarrassing to them, might not want to be, you know, let out.

So yeah, this has been a concern among athletes that it's really, you know - they're giving up a lot of privacy in this attempt to, you know, support clean sport.

MCEVERS: Many Russian athletes of course were banned from the Olympics for doping. Does that have anything to do with this hack?

ASCHWANDEN: Potentially. You know, there is - there's sort of the question of, you know, what was the motive here? And we don't know that. We really don't.

MCEVERS: Right.

ASCHWANDEN: You know, there was some sort of alluding to this idea that the anti-doping rules are not applied universally. I think that that's something that really did come out of these doping scandals that we've had over the last year. So perhaps they're trying to bring attention to that. Although in this case with the TUEs, I don't think that what we're seeing, you know - what the hackers have released so far is really not showing that.

You know, I was talking to my colleague T.J. Quinn at ESPN, and you know, we've been looking over these releases. And really what you're seeing with the Williams sisters is that everything seems to be on the up and up. These were drugs that had legitimate purposes. They were used in timing that, you know, would be legitimate.

MCEVERS: OK. That's Christie Aschwanden. She writes about sports and science for FiveThirtyEight and other publications. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.