Mike Rowbottom ©ITG

Gunter Younger, the former chief of the Bavarian Police cybercrime department, has been bringing his forensic skills to bear for the last five years in the service of the World Anti-Doping Agency, for whom he is director of Intelligence and Investigations (I&I).

Efforts have reached something of a crescendo this month with the arrival of three reports on three different topics - and Younger is now seeking to make some significant improvements to the way in which whistleblowers within the sport can be safeguarded.

Younger was originally seconded in 2015 to the three-person Independent Commission that, on WADA’s behalf, eventually exposed widespread doping in Russian athletics.

"I believe in what I am doing and I think we have achieved quite a lot in the last five years," he said.  "We have 15 people and by the end of the year 17 which is more than 12 per cent of WADA staff, so you see that WADA believes as well in its investigative capabilities."

Clearly notice has been taken of the audit undertaken of the I&I department in January 2020 which described the unit’s lack of resources as "acute" and urged the hiring of three people "as soon as possible".

The annual audit, conducted by independent supervisor Jacques Antenen, argued that "for the credibility of anti-doping" it was "essential" to process all sources of information.

It went on: "That is not currently possible."

On October 6 an I&I report announced that no further proceedings would be necessary against other individuals in the Nike Oregon Project (NOP) case, concluding that the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) investigation had "exhausted all reasonable avenues" in establishing anti-doping rule violations (ADRVs) against those involved.

Among the three reports released this month by WADA's Intelligence and Investigations department was on the subject of misconduct over doping sample analysis involving UKAD and British Cycling in 2011  ©Getty Images
Among the three reports released this month by WADA's Intelligence and Investigations department was on the subject of misconduct over doping sample analysis involving UKAD and British Cycling in 2011 ©Getty Images

A report issued on October 19 confirmed wrongdoing by representatives from British Cycling and UK Anti-Doping (UKAD) in connection with accusations that cyclists' samples were analysed privately for the purposes of screening for a banned substance.

This report, entitled Operation Echo, said that in 2011 British Cycling collected samples from elite riders and screened them for nandrolone as part of a study into the potential contamination of supplements.

It was found that British Cycling did not follow rules in the World Anti-Doping Code in connection to how the samples were collected and analysed.

And on October 26 Younger’s department revealed that Ukraine’s National Anti-Doping Organisation (NADC) has been giving athletes advance notice of what should have been unexpected out-of-competition tests since 2012.

The investigation, known as Operation Hercules, was launched in 2019 and "uncovered evidence to suggest that since 2012, NADC has conducted unjustified advance-notice sample collections, arranging to test athletes - including groups of athletes - by appointment at the NADC offices."

In addition, the report amassed "compelling evidence" to suggest that, in 2021, the NADC knowingly reported at least six in-competition samples as out-of-competition samples, in contravention of various articles of the World Anti-Doping Code.

Meanwhile new strategies for allowing those who offer confidential information uncovering doping abuses to remain anonymous are being actively explored.

"There is space for improvement," Younger told insidethegames.

Asked exactly what measures he had in mind, he responded: "To be honest I don’t want to say at the moment.

"Because if the other knows what our strategy is they could make their assumption and it would endanger our clients.

"But we have discussed with our legal department and we are very happy to have them in this process where we say: ‘What can we do in order perhaps to protect, and not provide the identity?’

"There are some avenues, there are some possibilities.

"I think we need to go the next step of really thinking about how we can protect the identity in the result management process.   

"It is something that we suffer a little bit in our way of working with these clients."

Gunter Younger, head of WADA Intelligence and Investigations, has told insidethegames that new policies are being considered to improve confidentiality for whistleblowers within sport  ©ITG
Gunter Younger, head of WADA Intelligence and Investigations, has told insidethegames that new policies are being considered to improve confidentiality for whistleblowers within sport ©ITG

Asked what the timeline would be on the new approaches, Younger said: "We will try to find which avenues are open.

"We want to initiate the discussion because I think all people, all our colleagues and partners who work with us, they have the same problem, or challenge.

"And in this respect it needs to be a common discussion, with everyone saying that, yes, we should definitely in the next review perhaps implement - and I have no solution yet - but perhaps implement something where we can even more protect our clients.

"We are not talking about every whistleblower.

"We are talking about those where there are security concerns.

"Of course there is always a concern, but is there a serious concern?"

Younger said that one major element in the current system employed to incentivise whistleblowers - or "confidential sources" as WADA prefers to call them - currently presents "a dilemma."

He was referring to the mechanism whereby athletes who have committed an anti-doping rule violation (ADRV) can reduce their standard ban by providing information that proves useful to WADA’s I&I department, explaining: "If an athlete gets substantial assistance then we need to publish the name and the reduced sanction of the athlete so that International Federations know if an athlete can compete or not.

"Sanctions are usually harmonised to four or eight years.

"Therefore it is clear to everyone that an athlete got substantial assistance when it deviates from the norm and if now a respondent wants to know who might have disclosed his misbehaviour then he could assume that it was an athlete with the reduced sanction.

"That is a challenge for us to protect the identity of a confidential source.

"However, we have already developed some tactical actions.

WADA refused to give up key information to the Court of Arbitration for Sport regarding whistleblowers after a request had been made to do so during the investigations into orchestrated doping in Russia ©Getty Images
WADA refused to give up key information to the Court of Arbitration for Sport regarding whistleblowers after a request had been made to do so during the investigations into orchestrated doping in Russia ©Getty Images

"Regardless, this area needs to be further developed to even more protect our most valuable clients - persons who want to remain confidential but to help us to create clean sport."

Younger stressed that, wherever possible, it was WADA’s policy to avoid the naming of confidential sources and to resist demands for information regarding them from outside agencies.

He cites the major case involving the orchestrated and widespread doping system that was being undertaken in Russia and came to light soon after the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics.

"It was requested of us by the Court of Arbitration for Sport that we provided information about our whistleblowers," Younger said.

"And we said no.

"Because it’s my responsibility, it’s not the responsibility of CAS.

"We told them: ‘No, we go so far, but no more.

'You don’t get the names of those who worked with us on this case and that’s it.

'You have to live with that.'"

In the wake of the NOP report, there has been criticism by some media of WADA’s position regarding Steve Magness, the former NOP assistant coach whose subsequent information about the project formed part of the case against it.

American Arbitration Association (AAA) panels ruled in September and October 2019 respectively that American coach Alberto Salazar and Houston-based endrocrinologist Dr Jeffrey Brown, who treated Olympians at the Project, had committed ADRVs, in relation to the administration of L-carnitine infusion to a NOP athlete.

The athlete who received the infusion, known as Witness A, more recently known to be Magness, assisted the investigation, with the AAA concluding that no other person had received an infusion.

Younger completely refutes the idea that WADA disclosed the identity of Witness A. pointing out that Magness was a witness who appeared at the CAS hearing and was thus not a confidential source.

"If you read the CAS decision you see exactly the names, all the circumstantial evidence and all the evidence that was provided," he said.

"Our job was to review the entire investigation, to see whether there were any other anti-doping rule violations against athletes and support personnel. So we looked into every single case and then assessed and this is what was the outcome.

"From our side we could not establish any ADRV against any other athletes, but there is one that we mentioned that there is an ADRV and this person should be charged."

That is a reference to Magness, who at the time received an infusion that transgressed the legal limits in place at that time. It classified as an ADRV because he was still registered as an active athlete at that time, although clearly not one of the elite performers.

Salazar and Brown were both given four-year bans by the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) in 2019, decisions upheld by CAS last month.

In relation to Witness A, WADA’s Legal Affairs Department said it was following up with USADA to ensure the terms of the World Anti-Doping Code were followed correctly.

The WADA position, essentially, is that if an ADRV has occurred it must be acted upon and acknowledged before the sanction can be reduced by whatever assistance has been offered in mitigation.

Meanwhile it has been suggested in some quarters that holding such a position will deter future whistleblowers from coming forward.

"We are not criticising whatever USADA did," Younger said. "But there are rules in place and I think it is important that we show to our clients and clean athletes that there are rules and they apply to everyone and we can rely on these rules.

"It doesn’t matter who you are, or how serious the case is, these are the rules we all agreed upon when we signed the Code.

"So this is why I say - if you bypass this one, how can you trust the system?

"I think that’s the danger for me."

Turning to the report on the longstanding irregularities within the Ukrainian National Anti-Doping Organisation (NAOC) Younger said that the process, which had started in 2019 but been delayed by COVID-19 lockdown, had been initiated by anonymous tip-offs via the WADA Speak Up! Network.

"After that we began reaching out to athletes, coaches, officials, interviewing them when we could.

"Most confidential sources come, they share something, say ‘That’s it, do whatever you think appropriate. We are out.’

"If someone comes with information anonymously it has not the level like a witness statement or irrefutable evidence. So the lower it is the more you need from somewhere in order to corroborate that.

"We always encourage our sources to come forwards because it’s a trust level. We need to trust each other. We need to trust them and believe them.

"But our investigators, for instance, they never learn the identification of a whistleblower. It’s only the confidential source management - they are their counsellor and manager and they are the bridge between the source and the investigation.

"The investigator will ask questions of the source handler, and then they go back and decide what they can share or not. It is always handler who will advise - that might be too risky, this could identify our sources so we better not because the risk of being identified is higher which means a security issue for you.

"But in the Ukrainian case we heard that in-competition samples were being passed off as out-of-competition samples.

"If someone give you this information there are other means that we can use to identify whether this is true. You go on the Anti-Doping Administration & Management System (ADAMS), you check the samples, you see the forms.

"So there are different means and at the end you don’t need the whistleblower.

"It is always the best when we have other means, other avenues, other evidence, and they corroborate. And we don’t even need a witness statement any more."

Regarding the UKAD case, Younger said UKAD had been "fully co-operative", above and beyond their requirements, "which showed to our side that they had nothing to hide or they wanted to know and get rid of these allegations.

"As well what I think is that UKAD today is a different one from 2011.

"I cannot say that it will never happen again because this is not my job. My job is to find facts and then provide them and it is up to others to assess what could be established in order to prevent such incidents happening again.

"For me the most important thing is that there we could identify the relevant samples and they were all negative. No results hidden somewhere, and that was important for us in protecting the clean athletes."

Younger added: "We get so much criticism but there are so many people who believe what they are doing here. It is really unbelievable, and I can say that because I have worked in law enforcement for many years.

"As well there are some political discussions about WADA independence. I can assure you if there is any influence in investigations I go back in a heartbeat to my service in the police.

"And the fact that I am still here means they respect our independence and there was no influence at all. On the contrary we get all the support we need from the organisation."