American gymnast Simone Biles was an indomitable force at the Rio Olympics, helping the US women’s gymnastics team win gold and crushing the individual all-around, vault, and floor events. She ultimately took home four gold medals and one bronze medal, making history as the first American woman to win four artistic gymnastics gold medals in a single Olympics. No matter how she does in future competitions, she will be remembered as one of the most dominant gymnasts and Olympians ever to compete.
Someone wanted to tarnish that reputation.
A Russian hacking organization targeted Biles and other American athletes — including tennis players Serena and Venus Williams — by breaking into the World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA) athlete database and releasing their medical records to the public. The records show that Biles and the Williams sisters have tested positive for medications that appear on WADA’s banned substance list, but receive medical exemptions to do so legally in the eyes of their sports.
The hackers’ intention was to paint the United States and its athletes as hypocrites; when they released the hacked medical records on their website, they wrote that Biles and the Williams sisters "played well but not fair" at the Rio Olympics, and according to the New York Times, the records were "hailed in Russia on Tuesday as evidence of both widespread doping among American athletes and the double standards of global antidoping regulators."
But hacking high-profile American athletes wasn’t just about embarrassing athletes like Biles.
The hack is very much about Russian pride and a reaction to the bans on its athletes and the embarrassment the country has suffered since the revelations about its state-sponsored doping program surfaced earlier this year. It’s bitterness that has collided with American dominance. And it’s not the first time someone has tried to tarnish Biles or the Williamses' achievements.
The hack is really a response to the ban on Russian athletes at the Rio Olympics
To fully understand why the medical records of Simone Biles, Serena and Venus Williams, and possibly other American athletes were hacked, you have to look at Russia’s doping situation entering the Rio Olympics.
In the months leading up to the games, lots of Olympics-related news coverage revolved around Russian athletes’ widespread use of a drug called meldonium. Meldonium’s stated purpose is to treat people with heart disease, but it has also been shown to increase endurance, and it can help athletes recover more quickly from training. Because of the drug’s performance-enhancing effects, it
So far, the star athlete who’s been most affected by that ban is tennis ace Maria Sharapova, who has allegedly used the drug for years to treat a heart condition and diabetes — a shaky claim, since the drug is intended to be used two or three times a year, for four to six weeks at a time. Other athletes from Eastern European countries, as well as Ekaterina Bobrova, a champion ice dancer from Russia, have also been caught doping with meldonium.
Russia’s meldonium usage coincided with another doping revelation: that Russia partook in a state-sponsored cheating scheme at the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014, where doctors covered up Russian athletes’ use of performance-enhancing drugs. In 2016, a whistleblower named Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov revealed the scheme to the New York Times.
Rodchenkov’s information bolstered an account from Russian runner Yulia Stepanova and her husband, Vitaly, who tried to warn WADA about the doping in 2010 and have fled Russia since then. This culminated in July when WADA released a 100-page independent report on the widespread doping and concealment methods used by Russia’s Olympic team in Sochi.
As a result, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), which oversees the sport of track and field, announced that it was banning Russia’s entire track and field team from the Rio Olympics. The IAAF stated that not only was the Russian team guilty of doping in the past but Russia had not convinced the IAAF that its athletes were no longer doping and would not dope in the future.
It was an unprecedented punishment, and while Russian athletes in other sports were ultimately allowed to compete in Rio, they did so under the suspicion and stigma that they are cheaters (see: swimmer Yulia Efimova).
The IAAF’s ban on the Russian track and field team cast an inescapable shadow of shame on the country and its athletes. But it also spurred questions about punishment and how it should be doled out.
It’s not hard to imagine Russians looking at the Olympics this year and feeling like they’ve unfairly been made an example of, or that people have alleged that Russian athletes are the only ones who’ve cheated.
A flashpoint of the Rio Olympics came when American swimmer Lily King wagged her finger at Efimova, the aforementioned Russian swimmer, after saying in interviews that Efimova shouldn’t be swimming after testing positive for banned substances twice. King’s actions set a narrative into motion: that these Olympics were about athletes who play by the rules versus athletes and countries that don’t.
But even then, the rules of doping can seem arbitrary. For example, athletes using a drug that might be banned in the future but is still legal now are still allowed to compete. There could also be athletes who are trained in a system like Russia’s and, like Stepanova, feel helpless when it comes to speaking out.
It’s not difficult to see this hack from the Russian hackers’ point of view and draw a parallel between Biles and Sharapova.
In the Russian hackers’ eyes, both athletes took banned substances. Both athletes say they are taking the substance for a medical condition. The only difference is one has a medical exemption and the other doesn’t.
Biles and the Williams sisters will always have to defend their legacies
Out of all the American athletes in the WADA database, it is peculiar that three of the athletes hackers singled out are three of the most dominant black female athletes America has ever seen. It’s possible the hackers plan to release the medical information of other athletes, as they did warn that "this is the tip of the iceberg." And perhaps with the Williams sisters having just played in the US Open and Biles’s historic run in Rio, they believed those athletes’ information might get the most attention.
But insinuating that these black female athletes cheated fits an ugly pattern that Biles and the Williams sisters have endured in their careers: that they somehow don’t deserve their accolades because of the color of their skin.
Back in 2013, after losing to Biles at the World Championships, an Italian gymnast named Carlotta Ferlito told a reporter, "I told [teammate Vanessa Ferrari] that next time we should also paint our skin black so then we can win, too."
Serena and Venus Williams’s careers have been littered with instances of similar ignorance and hate. In 2014, Russian Tennis Federation president Shamil Tarpischev jokingly referred to the sisters as the "Williams brothers" during a television interview, explaining why it was so difficult to beat them — that they were men.
Many people hold the racist and insidious idea that black athletes possess an inherent advantage in sports.
In its mildest form, it pops up in the hyperbolic, ignorant ways that black athletes are described — like when Serena Williams is called a "monster truck." There are also comments from people like David Ciaralli, the spokesperson for the Italian Gymnastics Federation, who once said "colored people (known to be more powerful)" are being favored in gymnastics over "the typical Eastern European elegance." At its worst, this mindset equates blackness with cheating, as seen in the unfortunately common insinuation that Serena Williams takes steroids:
Steroids? Oh no, no, no. "Body image issues." http://t.co/40W01g14n7— David Frum (@davidfrum) July 11, 2015
Accusing Biles and the Williams sisters of doping feeds into that existing trope.
The hackers could have targeted any American athletes, but they chose Biles and the Williams sisters. That could very well be because of the success these three athletes achieved in Rio, but there were many American athletes who achieved incredible feats at the games (see: Michael Phelps, Katie Ledecky, and the US swim team in general). Or maybe it just so happens that Biles and the Williams sisters are the only high-profile American athletes with worldwide recognition who have medical exemptions for the use of banned drugs.
We can’t know for certain whether this hack was a racially motivated attack. But it wouldn’t be the first time someone has tried to drag down Biles or the Williams sisters because of the color of their skin.
Biles’s response to the hack was as graceful and powerful as she is, negating the hackers’ claims of hypocrisy
In the wake of the hack, Biles didn’t shy away from the opportunity to confront what happened. She addressed the situation clearly, explaining that she was diagnosed with ADHD as a child and that she takes medication to treat it — the hacked documents show that Biles tested positive for methylphenidate, commonly known as Ritalin, which is often prescribed to treat ADHD.
Biles also used the moment to shed light on ADHD, to ensure it didn’t label the disease as something to be ashamed of. "Having ADHD, and taking medicine for it is nothing to be ashamed of [and] nothing that I'm afraid to let people know," she wrote on Twitter.
Having ADHD, and taking medicine for it is nothing to be ashamed of nothing that I'm afraid to let people know.— Simone Biles (@Simone_Biles) September 13, 2016
USA Gymnastics backed Biles, stating that she has complied with all WADA rules and regulations and completed all the necessary procedures and paperwork to make sure she’s playing by the rules.
"Biles submitted and was approved for a therapeutic-use exemption (TUE), the proper paperwork for any medications that an athlete takes for an illness or condition that requires the use of a medication included on the WADA Prohibited Drug List, for prescribed medication(s) she takes," the organization said in a statement provided to news outlets. "By virtue of the TUE, Biles has not broken any drug-testing regulations, including at the Olympic Games in Rio."
While the hackers clearly meant to embarrass and shame Biles by stealing releasing her medical info, they ended up raising awareness about ADHD and Biles’s compliance with the rules. Of course, that doesn’t mean every American athlete is as upstanding as Biles or that all American athletes follow WADA’s doping rules to the letter. But when it comes to tainting Biles’s legacy or embarrassing her, this attempt has failed.
Serena and Venus Williams haven’t formally responded to the hack.