By Jonathan Gault
January 12, 2022
On Wednesday, the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York announced the first individual charged under the Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act: former UTEP sprinter Eric Lira. The Rodchenkov Act, passed in 2020, makes it illegal for anyone, other than an athlete, to participate in a scheme to affect the outcome of a major international sporting event via the use of performance-enhancing drugs.
Lira, 41, was charged with one count of international sports doping for providing performance-enhancing drugs including HGH and EPO to athletes who competed or intended to compete at the 2020 Olympics. If convicted, Lira faces up to 10 years in prison. He was also charged with one count of misbranding conspiracy for allegedly mislabeling the drugs involved. (Full Justice Department release here; complaint against Lira with more details here).
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The most interesting part of the case, however, are the WhatsApp messages, which US Customs and Border Protection officers were able to obtain from one of Lira’s clients, “pursuant to their border search authority and utilizing a passcode provided by [the athlete].” Those messages, a number of which were included in the complaint against Lira, offer unique insight into doping in elite sport.
The messages almost certainly come from Nigerian sprinter/long jumper Blessing Okagbare, 33, who was provisionally suspended following her 100-meter heat at the Tokyo Olympics after testing positive for HGH on July 19. In addition, Okagbare tested positive for EPO in a test conducted on June 20 and has also been charged by the Athletics Integrity Unit for refusing to cooperate with its investigation into her case.
Okagbare is not named in the complaint, but a message sent from an individual referred to as “Athlete-1” to Lira on June 22 – five days after Okagbare ran 10.63 in the 100m at the Nigerian Olympic trials in Lagos – makes it easy to conclude Athlete-1 is Okagbare:
Hola amigo / Eric my body feel so good / I just ran 10.63 in the 100m on Friday / with a 2.7 wind / I am sooooo happy / Ericccccccc / Whatever you did, is working so well.
According to the complaint, Okagbare reached out to Lira in November 2020, directing him to a website that sells performance-enhancing drugs, https://www.superhumanstore.com/shg/. She then asked him to provide him with HGH and EPO.
Some of the highlights of Okagbare’s WhatsApp exchanges with Lira:
-On June 7, Okagbare asked Lira to confirm receipt of $2,500 and asked if he could bring something to help another athlete when he next visited her in Florida:
Hey Eric, I just sent you $2,500, can you confirm it via Zelle [an electronic payment application]? And also, remember I told you [Athlete-2] had hurt his hamstring, so anything that will help the hamstring really heal fast you can actually bring it as well, ok?
-On June 13, Okagbare revealed that she intentionally missed a drug test because she was worried she might test positive:
Okagbare: So I took 2000ui of the E yesterday, is it safe to take a test this morning?
Lira: Good day [Athlete-1] . . . . 2000 ui is a low dosage.
Okagbare: Remember I took it Wednesday and then yesterday again / I wasn’t sure so I didn’t take a test / I just let them go so it will be a missed test.
“Athlete-2” was not identified, but an individual assisting the investigation found what appeared to be HGH, insulin growth factor, and EPO in their residence.
Based on the details in the complaint, Athlete-2 is male, was dealing with a hamstring injury in June, and had a residence in or around Jacksonville, Fla., – which is where Okagbare trained as a member of Tumbleweed Track Club under coach Rana Reider.
Reider’s group contains some of the top sprint talent in the world, including Olympic 200m champion Andre DeGrasse, US 100m champion Trayvon Bromell, and 2016 Olympic 110 hurdles champion Omar McLeod. Nigeria’s Divine Oduduru, Great Britain’s Adam Gemili, and Jamaican 100m champion Tyquendo Tracey are also members of the group. Notably, Tracey did not compete in Tokyo due to a hamstring injury, while Gemili tore his hamstring at the Olympics.
Reider is currently being investigated by the US Center for SafeSport after receiving multiple complaints of sexual misconduct.
Quick Take: This case shows the power of the Rodchenkov Act
Not everyone was in favor of the Rodchenkov Act when it was passed with detractors arguing that it was not the US government’s place to get involved in international doping cases. But the details released today show how helpful it can be to have the US government on your side when pursuing a case. When the AIU is investigating a case, it can’t get Customs and Border Patrol officers to stop an athlete on their way home from the Olympics and save a bunch of incriminating messages from their phone.
“When RADA was passed by the U.S. Congress and enacted into law just last year, we knew it could be a game-changer for the good of clean sport,” said USADA CEO Travis Tygart in a statement. “Now with this first case arising under it, which has protected the integrity of this past summer’s Tokyo Olympic Games, we are thrilled with its implementation and the power that it brings in holding athlete support personnel or other conspirators accountable, like the defendant here.”
Quick Take: Okagbare took a missed test rather than test positive
WADA’s whereabouts system is in place to hold athletes accountable for out-of-competition drug testing. But it is not infallible – as Okagbare revealed in her message of June 13, she intentionally missed a test because she was worried about testing positive. It would be foolish to think that she is the only athlete to make such a choice. While the whereabouts system can result in genuinely clean athletes serving bans, it is in place precisely because of athletes like Okagbare, who could not avoid the testers forever and ultimately tested positive twice – both in out-of-competition tests shortly after her intentional missed test.
Okagbare’s AIU case, which has been referred to a World Athletics Disciplinary Tribunal, is still ongoing, but her provisional suspension means she cannot currently compete.
Quick Take: Who is “Athlete-2”?
Given the FBI investigation found all sorts of PEDs at Athlete-2’s residence and Okagbare requested PEDs for him from Lira, there is a strong chance he was doping. So far, the AIU has not provisionally suspended anyone else from Reider’s group. Stay tuned.
Talk about today’s developments on our messageboard: MB: The feds are now involved!! 1st person charged under Rodchenkov Act in Blessing Okagbare doping case
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