By Raúl Daffunchio Picazo, adapted for the IFMA newsletter by Sue Glassey

The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) released the report of ‘Operation Refuge,’ a comprehensive analysis and investigation into doping among young athletes and the trauma experienced by child athletes following a positive test.

WADA’s report provides a detailed insight into the trauma and isolation experienced by child athletes following a positive doping test.

WADA’s Intelligence and Investigations Department report is a detailed account of the significant challenges faced by both minors and their families when a child tests positive in an anti-doping control test for the use of a prohibited substance or the use of a prohibited method. Commenting on the report’s conclusions, WADA President Witold Banka said: “The data, conclusions, and stories in the report should resonate deeply with all of us in the world of sport. My hope is that the findings, and more importantly, the first-person accounts of the minors and their support networks, will create a strong sense of urgency within the anti-doping community about how we can better protect young athletes in such situations in the future.”

He also discussed the need for sport to be a safe space for children: “Regardless of the level of competition, sport must remain a safe space for children. First, there needs to be more collaborative coordination across the entire anti-doping community in dealing with minors in the anti-doping process”. 

IFMA agrees and already has WADA’s global Anti-Doping Education and Learning Platform (ADEL) in place as part of their anti-doping education plan for their athletes of all ages. This platform offers a range of educational resources, including online training programmes for parents, coaches and support staff of elite athletes, as well as courses for talented athletes competing in major events, all of which are part of the IFMA’s anti-doping educational programme.

WADA is hosting a webinar for Anti-Doping Organisations (ADOs) this month, scheduled for 14 February 2024, at 09:30 (Eastern Standard Time). All National federations, coaches and stakeholders would benefit from attending this upcoming webinar.

Günter Younger, WADA’s Director of Intelligence and Investigations, said: “Operation Refuge sheds light on a difficult but important issue. WADA’s Confidential Information Unit (CIU) first raised the issue because it was concerned about the volume of reports it was receiving through its Speak Up! platform of doping activity among underage athletes. This CIU unit was driven by a desire to change the way WADA and the anti-doping community investigated these cases. What started as a simple idea became a two-year Intelligence and Investigations Initiative to engage the entire anti-doping community to do better. Thanks to this initiative, we are paving a better way for minors worldwide.”

When the report began:

In early 2021, WADA’s CIU observed an increase in confidential reports of doping activity among minors, including pre-adolescent athletes. WADA “became concerned about the nature and volume of the reports, leading to the investigation of the doping activities of minors to identify any patterns of violations, deficiencies in governance, and possible strategies on how to better address the issue of doping among minors. 

A key aspect of this investigation was to obtain first-person accounts not only from minors who had committed doping violations, but also from their families and support networks. North American media outlet VOA News reported that diuretics, stimulants, and anabolic steroids were the most commonly found substances in more than 1,500 positive tests involving more than 1,400 minors since 2012. Among them, the youngest child tested was eight years old, and the youngest sanctioned in a doping case was 12 years old, according to the WADA’s study. 

“Operation Refuge reports in heartbreaking detail the profound trauma and isolation that child athletes experience after a positive test and doping sanction,” said Ryan Pini, President of the Athletes’ Council and member of the Executive Committee, in a statement.

The testimony of a minor explained how she “recalled the extreme pressure she and other athletes felt from male coaches to keep their weight down.” According to the report, “This pressure included an impossible expectation to curb the effects of puberty, as it would supposedly negatively affect their ability to compete.”

This report showed that these problems were “most prevalent in Russia and India, and the most reported sports worldwide were aquatics and athletics.” 

In terms of future action, the report highlights immediate steps that need to be taken by Anti-Doping Organisations and governments to implement specific policies or procedures for dealing with minors. “Currently, many Anti-Doping Organisations (ADOs) do not have specific policies and procedures in place for dealing with minors, nor do they have trained and specialised personnel to deal with issues in this area,” stressed the four-year WADA President.

WADA President Witold Bańka speaks to the media during a Commonwealth Games Federation and World Anti-Doping Agency media conference. GETTY IMAGES

The 39-year-old Polish president was also self-critical in outlining areas for improvement within the organisation. “One area for improvement will undoubtedly be to place even greater emphasis on the development of educational initiatives for athletes and support personnel, particularly in the area of underage doping. WADA firmly believes that education is the best way to prevent doping in sport. This is especially true for young athletes. 

WADA is providing leadership driving this initiative and providing support in this area. The WADA president acknowledged that, “It will take the participation of the entire community to adequately address this critical issue. Together, we can strengthen the system for young athletes around the world.” 

In cases that resulted in sanctions, the most commonly found doping substances were the diuretic Furosemide in Russia, the anabolic steroid Stanozolol in India, and Clenbuterol in China, according to the report. 

In weightlifting, Stanozolol was the most common substance found. In athletics, it was the endurance-boosting hormone EPO. And in cycling, it was Meldonium, WADA stated.

The report found that around 80% of positive tests led to sanctions, while others were for substances approved for therapeutic use (TUE’s should have been applied for 30 days prior to competition start date). Some tests suggested systematic doping, including several minors testing positive for the same substance in samples taken on the same day. 

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

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 highlights a difficult but important issue,” said Günter Younger, WADA’s Director of Intelligence and Investigations, Günter Younger. “We are working to ensure that the experiences of those interviewed during this operation are not repeated.

IFMA Medical Commission Chair Dr Erdogan, Athletes Commission Chair Janice Lyn, Compliance Officer and Legal Commission director Valentina and Antidoping Administrator Zhuldyz will be attending this WADA webinar for ADOs on this Operation Refuge report: Analysing doping among minors.

National Federations and Team Coaches and Managers can help reduce this negative effect on our young athletes by taking the time to educate themselves, either by attending the upcoming Webinar designed for ADOs (anti-Doping Organisations) or reading the report that will come out from the IFMA after this Webinar. 

The webinar will be held on 14 February 2024 at 09:30 (Eastern Standard Time). Registration information will be shared with ADOs shortly. This means you will need to contact your national ADO to get the details to attend or to receive their report on the key points of this Webinar. IFMA will also be attending and can let you know it’s key points