WADA develops new method of identifying sample tampering as part of weightlifting investigation

  • WADA publishes provisional outcomes of its ongoing investigation into weightlifting
  • Inquiry into practice of real-time urine substitution by athletes and the use of ‘doppelgängers’ has uncovered suspected cases involving 18 weightlifters from six countries
  • Call for additional powers for WADA’s independent Intelligence and Investigations Department

The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) has developed a new method of detecting the prohibited practice of urine substitution at the point of collection and the use of sample surrogates or ‘doppelgängers’, following a ground-breaking investigation into the sport of weightlifting.

After more than three years examining the activities of the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) and the sport as a whole, WADA’s independent Intelligence and Investigations (I&I) Department today publishes the provisional findings of what is still an ongoing investigation.

Launched in August 2017, WADA I&I’s investigation into weightlifting has four pillars, namely:

  1. Operation Outreach, looking into claims that a high-ranking member of the IWF was paid to promote Russian interests and to protect Russian athletes from detection;
  2. Operation Heir, investigating allegations of an organized doping and protection scheme operating within Romanian weightlifting;
  3. Operation Extra, dealing with the complex process of collection, collation and assessment of all weightlifting intelligence received by WADA I&I; and
  4. Operation Arrow, a covert investigation into the practice of urine substitution at the point of collection.

This investigation has focused not just on athletes but also on others who might have been involved in facilitating this deception, including doping control officers, coaches, other athlete support personnel and officials. In 2019, WADA I&I successfully sought the support of multiple law enforcement agencies to investigate some of the allegations mentioned in the report. These law enforcement agencies approved today’s publication of this provisional report.

As it relates to Operation Arrow, the new methodology to refine the identification of potential substitute urine was developed by WADA I&I with assistance in part from confidential sources and analysis experts. This methodology has so far allowed investigators to identify, through DNA profile analysis, cases of suspected urine substitution involving 18 weightlifters from six countries. These cases will be presented to the International Testing Agency (ITA), to which the IWF has now delegated the conduct of its anti-doping program, for results management. WADA I&I found evidence of ‘doppelgängers’ being used to impersonate athletes during the sample collection process, ensuring clean urine was fraudulently provided.

WADA President Witold Bańka said: “WADA is appalled by what its Intelligence and Investigations Department has uncovered in this investigation. 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.

“WADA will continue to do all it can to help provide clean weightlifters with a safe and healthy environment for their sport. To do that more effectively in general, I believe this report shows clearly that it is time to start a discussion as to whether WADA should be granted additional powers of investigation, including unfettered access to all relevant internal documents and servers within the organization under investigation.”

WADA Director of I&I, Gunter Younger said: “In all we do, WADA Intelligence and Investigations seeks justice for athletes and for clean sport. The investigation into weightlifting has been complex, difficult and time-consuming with many obstacles placed in our way. The fear and silence that pervades this sport has been a significant impediment. Therefore, it has been very encouraging to receive such a large volume of intelligence as we did via WADA’s confidential whistleblower platform, ‘Speak up!’ The success of this investigation is down in large part to the bravery of those whistleblowers.

“We also commit to identifying other new investigative methods for our partners in the fight against doping. We want to detect doping wherever and however it occurs. The methodology applied as part of Operation Arrow in identifying cases of urine substitution can easily be applied to sports other than weightlifting. We will share the learnings and methodologies with Anti-Doping Organizations, laboratories and Athlete Passport Management Units to ensure a global and united effort to address urine substitution.”

Intelligence gathering within the sport of weightlifting continues. Following the McLaren IWF Investigation, which provided additional information to WADA I&I, WADA I&I is working closely with the ITA to ensure that all relevant intelligence is being thoroughly pursued (in addition to the 18 specific cases highlighted above). While the ITA is the IWF’s delegated independent investigative authority, as a Signatory to the World Anti-Doping Code, the IWF remains ultimately responsible and is subject to WADA I&I’s follow-up procedures, including through the Agency’s Compliance Monitoring Program.[1]

A further report will be published in due course, upon the completion of all outstanding law enforcement and I&I investigations.

[1] In addition, as announced on 15 June 2020, WADA continues to be in close contact with the ITA to monitor the management of pending weightlifting cases following the information obtained by the McLaren IWF Investigation.