Anti-dopers ponder paying informants to break code of silence in sports

Anti-doping organizations are torn over a suggestion from the director general of the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) to pay sports insiders to inform on their rivals or colleagues.

“We need information from the peloton. We need Radio Peloton,” Amina Lanaya told a French newspaper earlier this year.

To fight what she called “a form of omerta” — or a code of silence — in her sport, she said the UCI needed to “infiltrate the peloton, infiltrate certain teams, pay for ‘grasses.’”

Paid criminal informants are a staple of police work in many countries, but Lanaya’s suggestion that the sports world adopt the same approach has led to debate in the anti-doping community, even as they acknowledge that some of the biggest cases in recent years were broken thanks to tip-offs.

One of the biggest scandals in history, the vast system of institutionalized doping in Russia, gained worldwide attention in 2014 when German broadcaster ARD released a series of documentaries based on information from Vitaly Stepanov, a former employee of Russia’s anti-doing agency RUSADA, and his wife, runner Yulia Stepanova.

“It is essential to have informants,” said Damien Ressiot, head of the investigation department at the French anti-doping agency AFLD, who pointed out that of the 11 violations of their anti-doping rules, only one involved testing.

“We only get them by investigating,” he said.

Yet Ressiot is not convinced that paying informants will help such investigations.

“I don’t see the point,” he says.

In 2019, the World Anti-Doping Agency banned Russian athletes from all major sporting events for four years, following what it called a
In 2019, the World Anti-Doping Agency banned Russian athletes from all major sporting events for four years, following what it called a “doping crisis.” | REUTERS

Guenter Younger, a former German policeman and Interpol officer who is the head of the investigations at the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), agreed.

“I’m not a big fan, to be honest,” he said.

‘None asked to be paid’

While Younger said some informants are driven by idealism and a desire “for clean sport,” Ressiot noted that some are motivated by envy or other complex reasons.

The AFLD and WADA have both created dedicated tip web sites.

“We have a lot of information through this channel,” said Ressiot, adding that the AFLD received 80 reports in 2021 on its site.

Younger says that WADA’s five-year-old Speak Up! web page has also been highly productive, adding that “none of the informants over the past five years has asked to be paid.”

WADA can offer financial aid for “substantial assistance” by informants, said Younger, but these are used more as an expense allowance “for whistleblowers, if they have to travel to a place for example.”

The aid is also used to protect and escort athletes caught doping who decide to collaborate.

Ressiot says that while this kind of situation has happened, the AFLD has never taken on officially paid informants for tips — something Younger feels raises practical questions.

“It would be a problem for me to pay for something without knowing what it will be,” he said.

“I would probably ask for the information before knowing if I should pay for it, I would evaluate it and then I would ask for the price.”

Other observers support Lanaya.

“There is a very strong omerta in the sports world. Anything that can break it is a good thing,” said Pim Verschuuren, who works on sports governance at the French Institut de Relations Internationales et Strategiques

But, he warns, “by creating informants, we will place athletes in risky situations, they will be exposed and perhaps in danger. It must be minimal.”

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