Here's why it's no surprise that a Russian hack revealed Simone Biles and the Williams sisters used 'banned' drugs

US Olympians including world-renowned gymnast Simone Biles and tennis superstars Venus and Serena Williams were all 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,” cyber espionage group Fancy Bear, which the Times identifies as possibly the same group that hacked the Democratic National Convention servers, wrote on their website, posting links to private medical documents they obtained after hacking into the World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA) servers. 

The 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 the 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 (TUEs) — 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, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, along with substances like steroids. Many regular 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 T. 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 had ADHD and takes medication for it.

It’s true that medications like Ritalin and Adderall, which are used to treat ADHD, can have some performance enhancing effects, just like medications used to treat allergies and asthma. These effects include the ability to sustain effort for extended periods of time (more performance-enhancing for cyclists) and potentially enhancing the ability to focus.

However, these substances are also used to treat ADHD, which is a very real medical condition.

In some sports, 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 point out that young athletes may very well come from populations that are more likely to have attention issues — and we may be better now at identifying and treating attention disorders.

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