We have entered a post-millennial Cold War, and its frontier is doping. The confirmation came not just with the actions of Russia’s cyber-hacking ‘Fancy Bears’ collective, whose plunder of the World Anti-Doping Agency’s central database belied their cartoonish name, but with a jaw-dropping exchange this week between the Russian Embassy in London and a journalist who dared to point out why the country’s violation of athletes’ privacy was ultimately self-defeating.
“Quod licet Iovi?” asked the embassy, mischievously, via its Twitter account. Yes, the old Latin metaphor for double standards: namely, what is permissible for Jove is not permissible for an ox. Or, to extend it to the sports sphere: what is allowed for star American gymnast Simone Biles – who, the Fancy Bears files have shown, has a previously undisclosed therapeutic use exemption (TUE) for medication to treat her attention-deficit disorder – would never be applicable to Russians.
Except, as the BBC’s Daniel Sandford, a former Moscow correspondent, was at pains to stress, the theory was nonsense. Biles had done nothing wrong, having used the accepted exemption whereby athletes can receive a TUE for certain conditions and keep their reasons for doing so confidential. This was ever so slightly different to the systematic doping regime favoured in Russia, where competitors would prepare for the 2014 Winter Olympics by drinking gender-specific alcoholic cocktails spiked with steroids, and where dirty urine samples were swapped for clean ones through a hole in a Sochi laboratory wall.
Russia, for all its bitterness at its blanket ban from this month’s Rio Paralympics, has not a leg to stand on when it comes to trying – and failing – to dredge up malfeasance elsewhere. For a start, it has been shown to have perpetrated perhaps the most reprehensible and large-scale doping racket in the history of sport. And while there might be legitimate questions to ask about the prevalence of TUEs among elite athletes, nothing can excuse the methods, every bit as sinister and cynical as the practice of mixing Martini with methenolone, that Russian hackers have used in invading the personal medical files of blameless individuals from rival nations.
So, we should accept no lectures from Russians about the idea that there is one set of rules for them and another for everybody else. They brought their Paralympic punishment upon themselves. What is truly alarming, however, is the lengths that they will go to correct the injustice that they perceive has been done to them. There is no obligation for athletes to disclose TUEs for a reason. Why should a woman undergoing hormone-replacement therapy, for example, be compelled to divulge this to the world? Now, any such notion of patient confidentiality has been torn to shreds. As such, a whole new theatre has opened up in a drugs war that becomes uglier by the day.
Travis Tygart, head of the US Anti-Doping Agency and a figure who has himself questioned the ease with which TUEs can be obtained, was scathing about the hack. “It is 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,” he said yesterday. “The cyber-bullying of innocent athletes being engaged in by these hackers is cowardly and despicable. It is time for the entire international community to stand up and condemn this cyber-attack on clean sport and athletes’ rights.”
Russia, for its part, claims that there was no official sanction of the actions of Fancy Bears, a mysterious group known for the effectiveness with which they cover their tracks. Dmitry Peskov, a Kremlin spokesman, declared “I can say unambiguously that there can be no mention of Moscow or the government”.
That will hardly wash. Given the institutionalised nature of the country’s doping apparatus, one cannot discount the possibility that the hacking may have taken place at least partly with the connivance of the state.
After all, Russia has previous in this area. As the New York Times has documented, its rationale in such cases is always to create a façade of plausible deniability. American intelligence sources have suggested that a series of cyber-attacks on Estonia in 2007 followed precisely the same pattern, where espionage was simply delegated to third parties. Nato described the then unprecedented scale of cyber-warfare as a “very serious disturbance”.
By that measure, the latest scurrilous Russian-led infiltration of medical documents should also be regarded as a matter of the utmost gravity. It has been confirmed that one piece of material the hackers laid their hands on included the whereabouts of Yuliya Stepanova, the whistleblower who blew the lid off Russia’s doping plot and who has since feared for her life.
There is no telling what dire ends this information could be put to if it winds up in the wrong hands. The same is true of other athletes who have had their files prised open, considering they are obliged to let anti-doping authorities know where they are at all times. Those details, too, could find their way into the possession of some genuine undesirables.
In 2007, Russia went after Estonia through cyberspace after the Bronze Soldier, a significant Soviet war memorial, was removed without its consent from the central square in Tallinn. Nine years on, smarting from the sense that it has been traduced by the West over doping, it appears to be going after America. Historically, this is a dynamic that seldom ends well. Sport needs to wake up to the grim reality that this week’s cyber-raids signal nothing less than the beginning of a second Cold War.