Four core members of the double-bronze-medalist Canadian women's soccer team, including captain Christine Sinclair, were granted Therapeutic Use Exemptions (TUEs) to take a banned asthma medication that can expand lung capacity.
The exemptions were all granted within a week of each other in the period leading up to the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. There is no suggestion the players broke any rules.
On Monday, the players – Sinclair, Melissa Tancredi, Sophie Schmidt and Rhian Wilkinson – became the first Canadians named in documents released by the Russian cyber collective, Fancy Bears.
Dozens of athletes have had their TUEs revealed in recent days after hackers penetrated the medical files of the World Anti-Doping Agency. Others named in the latest data dump include tennis great Rafael Nadal and British track star Mo Farah.
The Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport confirmed Monday that the documents are genuine.
"The leak of this information is reprehensible, just because it's putting private medical information about athletes out into the public," CCES president Paul Melia said. "If the suggestion is that this is some form of doping that's going on, that couldn't be further from the truth. These are approved by medical committees."
The four soccer players were all prescribed salbutamol, often marketed as Ventolin, a widely used treatment for lung ailments including asthma. In 2002, the International Olympic Committee began demanding that athletes using the drug prove they have some form of asthma or breathing impairment. It remained on WADA's banned list until 2010.
The drug is no longer prohibited, but there is no consensus on its effects. Dr. Don McKenzie, a University of British Columbia sports physician and CCES board member, has researched salbutamol's effects on athletes.
"If they had a TUE back then, the thinking at the time was that there was no beneficial effect in terms of performance enhancing, and that all you were doing by taking that inhaler was levelling the playing field in terms of your capacity to breathe," McKenzie said. "It wasn't until we started to see that asthmatic athletes were outperforming the non-asthmatic athletes that people started to wonder if there's more to this. That's where we're at now. It's quite a contentious issue."
Wilkinson and Tancredi received TUEs to take salbutamol via inhaler in January and June, 2007, respectively. The exemptions were given for one year.
The four teammates were granted exemptions within one week of each other in January, 2008, again effective for one year. The period of usage covered the squad's participation in the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. All four were starters on a Canadian team that lost in the quarter-final to the eventual gold-medalist, USA.
"Canada Soccer carefully followed the appropriate procedures to allow for the use of these medications by our athletes," Andrew Pipe, chair of Canada Soccer's medical committee, said in part in a statement. "We are disappointed that athletes' personal medical information has been shared publicly. All have a right to the protection of their personal medical records. Canada Soccer will continue to respect and honour this right to privacy."
The TUEs were authorized by a pair of CCES administrators, including the current manager of the anti-doping program, Matthew Koop. According to Melia, the applications would first have been reviewed by a medical committee. In each case, evidence would be provided by a physician that the applicant suffered from a bronchial impairment.
Since 2011, salbutamol can be used without an exemption, but in restricted dosages. Anything over WADA's limit (1,600 micrograms in a 24-hour period) may be considered doping.
Many suspect the Fancy Bears leaks are an effort by Russian officials – whether rogue or government-sponsored – to discredit the rest of the world's competitors following the banning of scores of Russian athletes prior to the recent Rio Olympics.
While most named competitors have shrugged off revelations about their legal drug use, it's put a few under a hard light.
Most notable among those is British cyclist Bradley Wiggins, a Tour de France and Olympic champion.
Wiggins had made himself into a sort of champion of clean competing, claiming in an autobiography that he'd never taken a needle that wasn't a vaccination or an IV fluid drip. Fancy Bears revealed that to be a lie: Salbutamol was one of several drugs Wiggins had an exemption for in 2008.
Melia said that while he did not think private medical information should be released, he did hope that the Fancy Bears mess might spur WADA and related agencies to be more transparent in the processes around exemptions. He called it "the silver lining" of an ongoing embarrassment.
"But to the extent this is being used to suggest there is some sort of controlled doping going on in these countries that is similar in some way to the state-sponsored doping that went on in Russia, that is ludicrous," Melia said. "People should not be confused by that."