Texts, pictures lead to 1st doping case under new US law

Sports

Blessing Okagbare, of Nigeria races in a women’s 200 meter heat at the World Athletics Championships in Doha, Qatar, Sept. 30, 2019. U.S. prosecutors charged a Texas man on Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2022 with providing performance-enhancing drugs to athletes competing in the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, including Okagbare. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty, file)

DENVER (AP) — Nigeria’s top Olympic medal hopeful was thrilled. The drugs her doctor sent were working.

“Eric my body feel so good,” Blessing Okagbare said in a text not long after running the 100 meters in a personal-best 10.63 seconds. “Whatever you did is working so well.”

“Eric” is Eric Lira, a naturopathic doctor in Texas, who on Wednesday became the first person charged under a landmark U.S. law designed to add legal accountability to a global anti-doping system that has long struggled to regulate itself.

Okagbare was the highest-profile sprinter in a country with a history of doping problems, one that could be facing more scrutiny under the auspices of the Rodchenkov Act that was passed in 2020 to root out cases like these.

“It’s not winning if you take illegal substances — it’s cheating,” said FBI Assistant Director Michael J. Driscoll, who helped spearhead the investigation.

The texts between Lira and Okagbare were among the 10 pages’ worth of evidence the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Manhattan unsealed in a criminal complaint. The attorney’s office said Lira distributed the drugs, including human growth hormone and erythropoietin, a blood-building hormone, “for the purpose of corrupting” the Tokyo Olympics.

The 33-year-old Okagbare, who won a silver medal in the long jump at the Beijing Games in 2008, is not specifically named in the complaint. But the description of “Athlete 1,” along with her racing and suspension history, matches Okagbare to a “T” — from the 10.63 she was excited about in mid-June to the provisional suspension she received in late July for a positive test for human growth hormone.

That suspension was announced only hours before Okagbare was to run in the 100-meter semifinals in Tokyo. The Athletics Integrity Unit, which oversees the anti-doping effort in track and field, had previously said Okagbare tested positive for a blood booster in Nigeria in June. She was charged with failing to cooperate with the investigation after she disobeyed an order to produce “documents, records and electronic storage devices” in relation to the other charges, the AIU said at the time.

Anti-doping officials say the ability to detect doping and suspend Okagbare, who was considered a strong medal contender, before she raced was a victory in and of itself — one that prevented another chapter in the long cycle of medals being stripped and re-awarded years after an infraction takes place.

Okagbare did not return text messages left on her cell phone by The Associated Press. She has been mostly silent, other than a tweet last year: “When it’s time to say anything, I will and it will be worth the wait,” she said.

Even before Okagbare’s suspension, there was trouble brewing in Nigeria, which, to anti-doping regulators, was considered a “high risk” country because of flaws in its testing program. The AIU announced 10 Nigerian athletes would not be allowed to participate in the Olympics because they did not meet anti-doping testing requirements in the lead-up to the Games.

It is this history that points toward Nigeria potentially being further targeted under the auspices of the Rodchenkov Act. More than individual athletes, the law was passed to go after people and organizations that fund and promote doping schemes.

Critics of the act, including the IOC and the World Anti-Doping Agency, insist the law is too far-reaching and gives too much power to U.S. authorities to prosecute transgressions that occur outside America’s borders. But shortly after the charges were unsealed, several big names in the anti-doping world were lauding the first case to come under the new law.

“Collaboration between law enforcement and anti-doping agencies can considerably strengthen the ability to detect serious doping, as is alleged in this case,” said Brett Clothier, the head of the AIU.

Working off a tip from a whistleblower, authorities accessed Okagbare’s cell phone and saw messages in which she requested four doses of “honey,” which investigators determined was a reference to HGH.

There were also several text messages between Okagbare and Lira, some of which also mention an “Athlete 2,” who lived in Florida and has not been identified.

One text came on June 7, about 10 days before Okagbare ran her personal best: “I had a bad race yesterday, Eric. Upset, angry, and disappointed.”

A few days later, Athlete 1 wrote to Lira that she “took 2000ui of the ‘E’ yesterday, is it safe to take a test this morning? Remember I took it Wednesday and then yesterday again. I wasn’t sure so I didn’t take a test.”

A few days after that, Okagbare ran the 10.63 — a personal best that, even though it was wind-aided, made her very happy.

While her suspension has been in place since last year, the Rodchenkov Act was designed to cast a wider net, one that has now nabbed Lira, the alleged provider whose next hearing was set for next Tuesday.

“Today’s action is entirely appropriate and puts real teeth into anti-doping enforcement, while also setting an example of international cooperation and fair play for future generations,” said the namesake of the law, Grigory Rodchenkov.

Rodchenkov was the director of the anti-doping lab in Moscow where much of Russia’s plot to undermine the systemin advance of the 2014 Olympics in Sochi took place. He has been living in hiding since coming forward as a whistleblower about the Russian scheme.

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Associated Press reporter Jim Mustian contributed from New York. Pells reported from Denver.

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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