An influential, Polish-language Internet portal accuses U.S. athletes of illegal doping.
Event: On 13 September, the website onet.pl, one of Poland’s most important online portals, posted an article presenting confidential World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) data on alleged doping violations by leading U.S. athletes. The information, discovered by the Fancy Bear hacker group and reprinted from the Russian and Italian media, claims the athletes received WADA’s consent to use banned drugs. The story was picked up by the Polish-language version of Russia’s government-owned Sputnik portal.
The false facts or narrative: The documents claim that tennis player Serena Williams received WADA permission to use banned substances in 2010, 2014 and 2015, and that her older sister Venus was allowed to do so between 2010 and 2013. The allegations also involve U.S. gymnast Simone Biles, who won four gold medals at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
Reality on the ground: Neither the Williams sisters nor Simone Biles received WADA consent to use banned drugs, but—due to illness—they were allowed to use drugs containing substances prohibited by WADA. The agency bans medications whose sole purpose is to increase muscle mass and improve performance. It allows some drugs for the treatment of diseases, but which as a consequence boost stamina and other qualities that may help in competition. Therefore, the use of such medication by Biles and the Williams sisters took place according to proper WADA procedures. The athletes also had their physicians’ permission to use the drugs. The article offered no proof that the accused athletes had abused WADA’s permission in any way.
Technique: The Kremlin frequently uses hacker groups to steal confidential data, which it then discloses to advance its foreign-policy interests. International media often unquestioningly accepts, as in this case, the validity of the “information” disclosed as well as Moscow’s analysis of it. This article presented neither the viewpoints of WADA nor the U.S. athletes in question, giving readers the impression that WADA approved the use of banned substances and that the athletes cheated.
Audiences: Russian and foreign (especially Polish) public opinion.
Analysis: The story reflects Moscow’s goal of showing that the United States dominates global sports organizations, which treat Russia unfairly. The Kremlin uses similar arguments regarding many other non-sporting bodies. The story also appears to be planted by Russian authorities as revenge after WADA banned Russian athletes from competing in the Rio Olympics upon learning that Moscow encouraged its athletes to use performance-enhancing illegal substances.