Weightlifting: 'Doppelganger' doping probe investigating 18 athletes suspected of substituting urine samples

Wada President Witold Banka said the results of the probe had highlighted the need to potentially strengthen the agency's investigatory powers.
Wada President Witold Banka said the results of the probe had highlighted the need to potentially strengthen the agency's investigatory powers.PHOTO: AFP

MONTREAL (AFP, REUTERS) - Eighteen weightlifters from six countries are suspected of supplying false urine samples after a World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada) investigation found evidence of "doppelgangers" being used to impersonate athletes, Wada said on Thursday (Oct 22).

Wada said the 18 cases, uncovered as part of a wide-ranging investigation into the scandal-tainted International Weightlifting Federation (IWF), will be forwarded to the International Testing Agency for review.

A Wada statement said the fraudulent urine samples had been uncovered after the agency's investigators developed a new methodology to identify substituted urine with help in part from confidential sources and analysis experts.

DNA analysis found 18 cases and evidence that lookalikes had been used to impersonate athletes during the sample collection process, to ensure that "clean" urine was provided.

The countries of the athletes involved were not disclosed.

"Wada is appalled by what its Intelligence and Investigations Department has uncovered in this investigation," Wada President Witold Banka said in a statement.

"For too long, clean weightlifters have had to deal with an entrenched culture of doping in their sport, where the promotion of fear ensured that the truth remained hidden and that those who wanted to do the right thing were isolated.

"Once again this has shown the importance of whistleblower information and the positive difference that can be made when people with information have the courage to come forward. Intelligence from well-placed confidential sources, coupled with the diligent work of Wada Intelligence and Investigations, is delivering significant results across a host of investigations."

Banka said the results of Wada's probe had highlighted the need to potentially strengthen the agency's investigatory powers, including granting "unfettered access to all relevant internal documents and servers within the organisation under investigation".

The discovery was part of multiple and ongoing Wada probes that began in 2017, including Operation Arrow, a covert investigation into the practice of urine substitution at the point of collection. Other branches of the investigation included Operation Outreach, which looked into accusations that a high-ranking member of the IWF was paid to protect Russian athletes from detection, and Operation Heir, which looked into allegations of an organised doping and a protection scheme operating within Romanian weightlifting.

The IWF did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Weightlifting has been in turmoil since January when a documentary by German TV channel ARD revealed what it described as a "culture of corruption" in the sport intended to mask the use of doping. According to the documentary, until 2017, high-level weightlifters were being exempted from many doping controls, and test results were being altered in exchange for bribes.

An independent investigation into the IWF conducted earlier this year by Canadian law professor Richard McLaren found widespread corruption within the organisation, including doping cover-ups with fines paid directly to former president Tamas Ajan, who rejected the accusations as "lies" before being pressured into resigning in April.

The 81-year-old Hungarian had been at the IWF since the mid-70s, serving first as secretary general and then as president from 2000 until his departure.

The troubled federation last week appointed its third interim president in as many days, with Britain's Michael Irani, the former chair of the anti-doping commission, taking over from Thailand's Intarat Yodbangtoey.

Yodbangtoey had replaced American Ursula Papandrea in the role after an emergency meeting of the executive board.