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WADA cracking down on doping ‘doppelgangers’ used to fool drug testers

Is it possible for a confirmed clean athlete to be found guilty of a doping infraction? Yes — and the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) is ready to start cracking down.

It is called a doppelganger in anti-doping circles, or as they might say in Hollywood, a double. Basically, it is a person that can be passed off as somebody else in a drug test.

WADA had its suspicions confirmed when the investigations unit noticed the DNA of some urine samples did not match the DNA of the athlete they thought was being tested.

The agency has identified 18 cases from six nations as part of an ongoing, three-year investigation into weightlifting.

Now attention will turn to other sports according to WADA director of intelligence and investigations, Gunter Younger.

“We targeted some athletes where we thought there’d been doping and one of the athletes we could identify was using a doppelganger,” Mr Younger told The Ticket.

“So we investigated the case and then we were thinking it might be that there are more.

Storing urine samples is an expensive business so those that are found to be clear of doping are routinely disposed of every three months, potentially wiping evidence of athlete substitution.

“Nevertheless we could identify 30 athletes where we had proof.

“From these 30 athletes, 10 were confirmed with DNA that they were not who they should be and for another eight … with all the evidence we have we are very sure that as well there was a doppelganger.”

A bald man in a suit speaks into a microphone
WADA’s Gunter Younger says they have evidence of doping dupes.(Reuters: Denis Balibouse)

WADA believes some of the clean athletes are being coerced against their will to protect teammates who are doping.

The agency also alleges some Doping Control Officers (DCOs), in charge of collecting urine samples, are complicit.

“We have intelligence and we investigated in some cases where we assumed that the coaches are involved, sometimes even the DCOs,” Mr Younger said.

“We have allegations that some of them [DCOs] knew, they just looked away when the doppelganger came.”

WADA wants to encourage and support whistleblowers

WADA says a new method of detecting urine substitution at the point of collection has been developed to catch athlete substitution as it happens.

Mr Younger says any athlete who has been part of such a doping fraud should get in touch through the agency’s whistleblower hotline.

Failure to do so may lead to clean athletes being found guilty of anti-doping offences and suffering years-long suspensions from sport.

“We know some are almost forced to be a doppelgänger to protect their colleague and I really encourage those to come forward to speak up voluntarily before we find them,” Mr Younger said.

“They are clean athletes … so if they come forward voluntarily and provide information which then discloses or detects other cases then it’s a different story.

“This is why I am saying… come forward, talk to us under the Speak Up program, we have full confidentiality and we discuss how we run this case without endangering the person or the identify of the person.”

Being a whistleblower anywhere carries significant repercussions, and sport is no exception.

Two athletes who blew the whistle on systemic state-sanctioned doping in Russia continue to live in hiding, unable to work in the industry they had dedicated their lives to.

Mr Younger says his department has worked hard to strengthen the protocols around supporting whistleblowers with more than 900 reports on WADA’s Speak Up webpage since March 2017.

“One of the reasons for the success is I have separated in our department the whistle-blower management from investigations, so none of my investigators knows the identity of the informant.

“We have very skilled source-handlers whose main objective is to speak on behalf of the informant … the informant is not alone and if he does not want to share the information it’s his decision, we always need the consent of the person.”

Mr Younger said Australia’s anti-doping body, Sport Integrity Australia, assisted in the recent investigation into doppelgangers.

“Our strong partner in this investigation was the Sport Integrity unit in Australia, we had very good cooperation with them and they were very helpful in this case.

“We try to partner with as many anti-doping organisations as possible.”

Sport Integrity Australia is now an enforcement body with extended powers.

A Bill currently before the Senate includes the addition of a ‘non-participant’ category alongside ‘athlete’ and ‘support person’ who must comply with strict anti-doping law.

A ‘non-participant’ is described as “board members, directors, officers, and specified employees, and Delegated Third Parties and their employees” who are bound by a sporting body’s anti-doping policy.

Under current legislation Sport Integrity Australia already has the power to require ‘any person’ to hand over information the CEO believes may be pertinent to an investigation.

The proposed changes would bring the wording of the legislation in line with changes to the World Anti-Doping Code that comes into force on January 1, 2021.

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