Toronto Star

Canadian athletes caught in sights of Russian hackers

Internatio­nal anti-doping computer system contains medical records of thousands


As the world fixates on Russian spying and cyberattac­ks in U.S. politics, the field of sports has been struck by similar intrusions and Canadian athletes and organizati­ons are among the hardest hit.

The Montreal-based World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) was warned last summer that Russian hackers were trying to breach its computer system, according to security officials and computer experts who requested anonymity to discuss the matter.

The agency’s former director general, David Howman, who reported that he received death threats during his tenure, said these kinds of attacks in sport are unpreceden­ted.

The attacks are believed to be in retaliatio­n for the revelation­s before the Rio Olympics about widespread Russian state-sponsored doping.

“When you’ve got the stuff that (the Russian whistleblo­wers) had passed over — although the Russians still deny it — that was mind-blowing, absolutely mind-blowing,” Howman said.

Richard McLaren, a Canadian law professor who has led two investigat­ions into Russian doping, said he changes hotels, rooms and phones often to avoid being tracked.

“I try never to stay in the same hotel because I do not want to create a pattern,” said McLaren, who spoke to the Star in the small tea room of a boutique hotel in London.

He remains calm, but wary. And he is not alone. Some experts claim that almost every Canadian athlete who has undergone a drug test in the past 10 years may have had their records hacked.

This proxy war began after McLaren delivered a report to the Internatio­nal Olympic Committee two weeks before the Rio Games.

McLaren substantia­ted the allegation­s of Russian whistleblo­wers that a statespons­ored doping regime affected dozens of sports and thousands of Russian athletes.

The sporting world immediatel­y divided: On one side were the Russians and, to the surprise of many, the Internatio­nal Olympic Committee; on the other were WADA and an array of national anti-doping agencies, including the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport (CCES), which tests athletes in this country.

The IOC allowed the Russians, with some exceptions, to compete in the Rio Olympics.

“It is . . . frightenin­g that this informatio­n is out in the public.” JULIEN BAHAIN CANADIAN ROWER

In a joint statement, the anti-doping agencies described the system as “deeply damaged” if confirmed cheaters were allowed to participat­e at the Olympics against clean athletes. Then the cyber-attacks began. In September, a group calling itself the Fancy Bears stated it had hacked the internatio­nal anti-doping computer system that contains the medical records of thousands of athletes.

These records showed the widespread use of Therapeuti­c Use Exemptions (TUE), which allow athletes to take a banned substance for valid medical reasons.

The group says it is independen­t and it communicat­es in a style similar to Anonymous: “We are Anonymous. We are legion. We do not forgive. We do not forget. Expect us.”

Security experts interviewe­d by the Star say the Fancy Bears is an arm of APT-28, which has connection­s to Russian military intelligen­ce. The group has been linked to the attacks on the U.S. Democratic National Committee, NATO and European journalist­s.

Whatever its origins, the Fancy Bears’ hacks galvanized sports.

Top internatio­nal athletes — tennis players Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams, British cycling champions Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome, and four members of Canada’s Olympic medal women’s soccer team, including captain Christine Sinclair — were mentioned in the hacked files.

Although all the athletes have denied any wrongdoing, cyclist Nicole Cooke told British MPS last month that, after seeing the revelation­s, she was “skeptical” of the British men’s cycling champions and that “taking TUEs just before major events raises questions for me.”

Beckie Scott, the Canadian gold medallist cross-country skier who is the athletes’ representa­tive at WADA, has a different opinion.

Most athletes use TUEs for valid reasons, she said, and the Fancy Bears hack was “an attack on athletes who were actually using the system legitimate­ly and registerin­g their TUEs as they should, so there should be no questionin­g (of them). There should be no skepticism shone on these athletes for using the system as they had been doing.”

In November, the hackers announced they had breached the Canadian and U.S. anti-doping agencies. They released TUE records, including informatio­n on a dozen Canadians in sports such as rowing, swimming, mountain biking, gymnastics and rugby. The Russian hack- ers may have accessed thousands of Canadians’ anti-doping records.

Julien Bahain, a Canadian rower, saw the TUE he obtained after back surgery published by Fancy Bears. “When I was told the news, it was scary,” Bahain said. “This is your medical files. It is intrusive and frightenin­g that this informatio­n is out in the public.”

The Fancy Bears also hacked the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sports (CCES) email system and revealed co-operation between the Canadians and Americans on preparing a lawsuit against the IOC.

“We’re going to continue to stand behind clean athletes and protecting clean athletes’ rights,” said Doug MacQuarrie, a senior executive at the CCES, which shut down its entire computer system to ensure its safety. “It’s really a sad commentary on the ideals of Olympism . . . They were also exploring things that they could do to make their efforts seem normal in the world of craziness that was going on around the Olympic Games. “This takes it to a whole new level.” The Star reached out for comment from Fancy Bears, but has not received replies to specific questions.

Vitaly Stepanov is a former Russian anti-doping official who, along with his wife, Yuliya Stepanova, a running champion, were the first whistleblo­wers to expose the extent of Russian doping. They live in hiding to avoid retributio­n.

Stepanov said he is not surprised by these efforts. “The government of Russia wants to be a super-power by using sport as they do other things. It is very important to them.”

Richard Pound, the Canadian lawyer who helped found WADA, agrees that the scale of espionage is unpreceden­ted.

“This is not something that was organized by the CIA or the NATO countries to embarrass Russia. This is a whole bunch of Russians cheating in sport and being assisted to do so by the state agencies, namely the FSB, the new KGB.”

Scott has been deeply shaken by the hacking attacks.

“I came out of that experience a different person than I went into it. That was because I had always acted in my role with WADA as a representa­tive of clean athletes with the higher, greater good and intention.

“Now, I feel like I saw the dark side and it changed me a little bit.”

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 ??  ?? Skier Beckie Scott said the hack targeted athletes who are following anti-doping regulation­s.
Skier Beckie Scott said the hack targeted athletes who are following anti-doping regulation­s.

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