WADA publishes report from ‘Operation Refuge’ analyzing doping among minors

soccer youth

The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) today publishes the findings of ‘Operation Refuge’, a broad analysis and examination of doping amongst minors in sport.  

‘Operation Refuge’ reports in detail about the deep trauma and isolation child athletes experience following a positive test and doping sanction. Undertaken by WADA’s Intelligence and Investigations Department, the report shines a light on the immense challenges faced by minors, their families and the anti-doping community when a child tests positive for a prohibited substance or method. The report delivers a number of conclusions and identifies important areas for improvement on this issue. 

WADA President Witold Bańka said: “The data, conclusions and stories in the ‘Operation Refuge’ report should reverberate loudly for us all throughout the sporting world. My hope is that the findings, and more importantly the first-hand accounts from minors and their support networks, will create a strong sense of urgency within the anti-doping community regarding the ways we can better protect youths who find themselves in these types of situations in the future. 

 “Regardless of the level of competition, sport must remain a safe space for children. First and foremost, a more collaborative coordination is required throughout the anti-doping community in the management of minors within the anti-doping process. The report outlines immediate action to be taken by Anti-Doping Organizations and Governments to implement specific policies or practices for dealing with minors. Currently, many Anti-Doping Organizations (ADOs) lack specific policies and procedures for dealing with minors, or specialized staff trained to deal with issues as they arise in this area. For WADA’s part, we continue our internal review of this issue and we encourage stakeholders to submit suggestions for improvement as part of the Agency’s 2027 World Anti-Doping Code and International Standards Update process that is currently underway. 

“One area of improvement for sure will be to place an even greater emphasis on the development of education initiatives for athletes and support personnel alike, specifically targeting doping among minors. WADA strongly believes that education is the single best way to prevent doping in sport. This is especially true the younger the athlete is. WADA is leading the way and providing support in this area. It will take the buy-in of the whole community to properly address this crucial issue. Together, we can strengthen the system for young athletes worldwide.” 

A number of educational resources are available on WADA’s global Anti-Doping Education and Learning (ADEL) platform, which notably hosts online education programs for parents, coaches and support personnel of high-performance athletes and courses designed for talented athletes competing at Major Events, among others. 

WADA Director, Intelligence and Investigations, Günter Younger, said: “’Operation Refuge’ places a difficult but important issue into the spotlight. WADA’s Confidential Information Unit first raised the matter as it was concerned by the volume of reports received through its ‘Speak Up!’ platform regarding doping activity amongst minor athletes. The unit was driven by a desire to change how WADA and the anti-doping community investigate these cases. What started as a simple idea developed into a two-year long Intelligence and Investigations initiative to engage the entire anti-doping community to do better. Thanks to this initiative, we are forging a better path forward for minors around the globe. We are working towards ensuring that the experiences of those interviewed during this operation do not continue to repeat themselves.”

Background on ‘Operation Refuge’ 

In early 2021, WADA’s Confidential Information Unit (CIU) observed an increase in confidential reporting of doping activity amongst minors, including pre-teen athletes. While the lack of detail in many of these reports prevented substantive enforcement action, WADA followed up every case and launched investigations where appropriate. 

WADA was concerned by the nature and volume of reporting, leading to the commencement of ‘Operation Refuge’. It examined the doping activities of minors with a view to identifying any patterns of offending, any deficiencies in governance, and any possible strategies on how better to address the issue of doping amongst minors. 

A key aspect of ‘Operation Refuge’ was the firsthand accounts obtained from not only minors who had committed doping violations, but also their family and support networks. Although these experiences were shared with WADA on condition of anonymity, such was the impact of these accounts that permission was obtained from some to share their stories in the report. 

From the firsthand accounts that were obtained, six key themes emerged, namely: 

  • Trauma; 

  • Isolation; 

  • Impact; 

  • Pressure; 

  • Ignorance, and; 

  • Abandonment 

The report details information obtained from human intelligence (e.g., interviews, informants), data analysis, external academic study, open-source research, and the anti-doping community. 

Operation Refuge Webinar 

In addition to the report, WADA will host a webinar for ADOs. The webinar will be held on 14 February 2024 at 09:30 (Eastern Standard Time). Registration information will be shared with ADOs shortly.