The digital doping hunt

Foto: Edgardo W. Olivera. Rio de Janeiro / CC BY 2.0

The Olympic Games in Rio shook our faith in clean sport. But new journalistic methods could help in the hunt for cheats.

The Cold War in sport was reborn on August 9, 2016 in the Olympic water sports arena in Rio de Janeiro. The Russian swimmer Yulia Efimova had her sights on gold in the 100m breaststroke, competing against her fiercest rival, the American Lilly King. As she discovered, however, Efimova also had to contend with the crowd, who remorselessly booed her. When King finished first, the celebrations were deafening. Even the German televised coverage was jubilant. “Jaaaaaaa!” shouted ARD reporter Tom Bartels into the microphone, before exclaiming, “This was a victory for sport, against a convicted doper, who shamelessly laughs in the face of fair play.”

Efimova was subject to a ban in March 2016 for testing positive for the forbidden substance Meldonium; in May the World Swimming Federation lifted the ban. The 26-year-old compared the ban to getting a parking ticket. From then on, she was seen by many viewers and the media as a representative of cheating in sport, and—understandably—of Russian cheating in particular.

The 2016 Olympic Games in Rio left behind a bitter taste. Rarely have an Olympics made it so abundantly clear that the image of competitive sports is tainted by cheating, and that sports organizations are thoroughly unable to act to address this problem. Even worse, the organizations are in fact part of the problem. As unsettling as this conclusion may be, as much as it may overshadow the inspiring feats of athleticism and uplifting rhetoric on display, it stands as the most lasting impression left by the Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro.

However, the Rio Games could also prove a salutary turning point for sport, precisely because cheating featured so prominently. Digital journalism especially has an opportunity to make a major contribution to the process of cleaning up the Games. But let’s take one thing at a time.

In December 2014, the German television channel ARD broadcast a documentary by the journalist Hajo Seppelt entitled “The Doping Secret: How Russia makes its winners”. Seppelt worked with whistleblowers like the Russian middle-distance runner Yuliya Stepanova to document the existence of systematic doping throughout high-level Russian sport. The response to the documentary was immense; sports organizations had to move quickly to adapt. The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) convened an independent commission to look into Russian sport.

The process set in motion by Seppelt began to gather speed. Three weeks before the opening of the Olympic Games, on July 18, WADA unveiled the findings of its investigation, which confirmed the information presented in Seppelt’s documentary. It was even discovered that the Russian internal security agency (FSB) was complicit in the doping program.

Russian cheating was no longer simply the subject of a leak, but a fact confirmed by high-ranking sporting officials. In the eyes of many observers, the only logical response to these revelations was the total exclusion of Russia from the Games . But the governing authority of the Olympic Games, the International Olympic Committee, did not dare to impose such a ban. Russian athletes who could prove that they had not been involved in the state doping system were permitted to travel to Rio for the start of the Games. The exception to this ruling were the Russian track and field athletes, who were collectively not allowed to take part.

The full exclusion of Russian foundered on the simple fact that the world’s largest country is inextricably intertwined with the leading world sports organizations, largely as a result of the willingness of ever fewer countries to embark upon the costly endeavour of hosting major sporting events.

In 2014 the Winter Olympic Games took place in Sochi in Russia; in 2018, Russia will host the FIFA World Cup. Russia is one of the biggest players in sport: a country willing to pour big money into such mega events and prepared to quietly tolerate the often questionable practices of global sporting organizations.

The case of Russia shows that the struggle against doping is difficult precisely because it is not about crooked athletes, but whole systems. Hajo Seppelt experienced this fact first-hand; in the course of his investigation he was repeatedly threatened and placed under close personal protection.

But there are new instruments which doping-hunters like Seppelt will be able to use in their future work. “The possibilities of the digital realm will help us to acquire information”, according to Seppelt. In June, 2016, he co-founded the web portal sportleaks.com; whistleblowers can use the site to report cheating in sport by forwarding incriminating data, documents or sound and video recordings with the assurance of anonymity.

The project is clearly doing well. “We have already received quite a number of messages”, says Seppelt. The difficulty for him and his team lies in filtering and checking the mass of information. Seppelt wants to build up a large network of investigative journalists who will help sportleaks.com to look into suspicious cases. “Let’s say that someone contacts sportleaks.com to report a doped horse in Argentina”, he says. “I wouldn’t deal with that myself—we would have a journalist in Argentina take that on.” Seppelt is convinced “that digitalization makes our work easier.”

But other actors are also using leaks to advance their agenda. This became clear when, in September of 2016, a hacking group reputed to be Russian and named “Fancy Bear” penetrated the system of the World Anti-Doping Agency, stealing huge volumes of data with information about athletes.

Over time, Fancy Bear released medical reports on top athletes—overwhelmingly US athletes—and accused them of doping. The alleged dopers all had obtained exceptional permissions for medications which are on the WADA ban list. “That was straightforward Russian propaganda”, said Seppelt. “Not one single Russian athlete with exceptional medical permissions was named in the leaks by these hackers. It was all very transparent.”

The data theft by Fancy Bear made it plain that sport faces new challenges for which it is not yet prepared, as no effective countermeasures against cyber attacks are in place. Many athletes reacted with shock to the publication of the medical reports, hardly surprising, as this was sensitive personal information, some of which had clearly been altered by Fancy Bear. At least this was the accusation made by WADA, although they failed to provide concrete evidence.

Digitalization could help sport in the long run, an optimistic outlook shared by the Mainz-based doping expert Perikles Simon: “There are more positives than risks. Digitalization could mark a contribution towards more transparency.”

Simon can fully understand athletes’ worries about the misuse of data, the fear that information gathered about them could violate their right to a private life. But, as he says, “The life of a top-level athlete is surely no walk in the park from that perspective. Whether the athlete is watched as they wee during a doping probe, or whether WADA hoards lots of their medical information, will likely not make much difference to them by that point.”

What is clear, says Simon, is that WADA should no longer make its data public. Data from doping tests, for example, gives no clarity in the final analysis as to whether the control system is being operated correctly in terms of doping probes of athletes. Simon believes that digital journalism can help to uncover relevant data. “It can bring us more light in the darkness”, he says. The legacy of the Rio Olympics could also be that the dark side of sports will soon be brought to light.



“Das Netz – digitalization and Society. English edition” gathers writers, activists, scientists, politicians and entrepreneurs to think about the developments of our digital life. More than 50 contributions reflect on the digital transformation of society. It is available as a free PDF. Download here!

Martin Einsiedler

Martin Einsiedler

Martin Einsiedler, born in Leutkirch in 1978, has worked as a sports journalist since 2008, specialising in sports policy. His dissertation on the reunification of German sports in the years 1989/90 was published by the publishing house Meyer & Meyer in 2011. Einsiedler writes for publications including Tagesspiegel and Zeit Online.
Martin Einsiedler

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