WADA: Strong report on doping among young athletes. GETTY IMAGES

The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) has released the report of 'Operation Refuge,' a comprehensive analysis and investigation into doping among young athletes and the trauma experienced by child athletes following a positive test.

WADA has released the "Operation Refuge" report, which provides a detailed insight into the trauma and isolation experienced by child athletes following a positive doping test, after conducting a thorough analysis. 

The report was conducted by WADA's Intelligence and Investigations Department and provides a detailed account of the significant challenges faced by both minors and their families when a child tests positive in an anti-doping control test for the use of a prohibited substance or the use of a prohibited method. Commenting on the report's conclusions, WADA President Witold Banka said: "The data, conclusions, and stories in the 'Operation Refuge' report should resonate deeply with all of us in the world of sport. My hope is that the findings, and more importantly, the first-person accounts of the minors and their support networks, will create a strong sense of urgency within the anti-doping community about how we can better protect young athletes in such situations in the future."

He also discussed the need for sport to be a safe space for children: "Regardless of the level of competition, sport must remain a safe space for children. First, there needs to be more collaborative coordination across the entire anti-doping community in dealing with minors in the anti-doping process". 

WADA President Witold Bańka speaks to the media during a Commonwealth Games Federation and World Anti-Doping Agency media conference. GETTY IMAGES
WADA President Witold Bańka speaks to the media during a Commonwealth Games Federation and World Anti-Doping Agency media conference. GETTY IMAGES

In terms of future action, the report highlights immediate steps that need to be taken by Anti-Doping Organisations and governments to implement specific policies or procedures for dealing with minors. "Currently, many Anti-Doping Organisations (ADOs) do not have specific policies and procedures in place for dealing with minors, nor do they have trained and specialised personnel to deal with issues in this area," stressed the four-year WADA President.

The 39-year-old Polish president was also self-critical in outlining areas for improvement within the organisation. "One area for improvement will undoubtedly be to place even greater emphasis on the development of educational initiatives for athletes and support personnel, particularly in the area of underage doping. WADA firmly believes that education is the best way to prevent doping in sport. This is especially true for young athletes. 

WADA is providing leadership leading the way and providing support in this area. It will take the participation of the entire community to adequately address this critical issue. Together, we can strengthen the system for young athletes around the world." 

In this regard, WADA's global Anti-Doping Education and Learning Platform (ADEL) offers a range of educational resources, including online training programmes for parents, coaches and support staff of elite athletes, as well as courses for talented athletes competing in major events.

WADA will also host a webinar for Anti-Doping Organisations (ADOs). The webinar is scheduled for 14 February 2024, at 09:30 (Eastern Standard Time). Commenting on the significance of the Operation Refuge report, Günter Younger, WADA's Director of Intelligence and Investigations, said: "Operation Refuge sheds light on a difficult but important issue. WADA's Confidential Information Unit first raised the issue because it was concerned about the volume of reports it was receiving through its Speak Up! platform of doping activity among underage athletes. 

The unit was driven by a desire to change the way WADA and the anti-doping community investigated these cases. What started as a simple idea became a two-year Intelligence and Investigations Initiative to engage the entire anti-doping community to do better. Thanks to this initiative, we are paving a better way for minors worldwide."

When the report began:

In early 2021, WADA's Confidential Information Unit (CIU) observed an increase in confidential reports of doping activity among minors, including pre-adolescent athletes. WADA "became concerned about the nature and volume of the reports, leading to the launch of "Operation Refuge." It investigated the doping activities of minors to identify any patterns of violations, deficiencies in governance, and possible strategies on how to better address the issue of doping among minors. 

A key aspect of 'Operation Refuge' was to obtain first-person accounts not only from minors who had committed doping violations, but also from their families and support networks. In this regard, North American media outlet VOA News reported that diuretics, stimulants, and anabolic steroids were the most commonly found substances in more than 1,500 positive tests involving more than 1,400 minors since 2012. Among them, the youngest child tested was eight years old, and the youngest sanctioned in a doping case was 12 years old, according to the WADA's Operation Refuge study. 

"Operation Refuge reports in heartbreaking detail the profound trauma and isolation that child athletes experience after a positive test and doping sanction," said Ryan Pini, President of the Athletes' Council and member of the Executive Committee, in a statement.

He cited the testimony of a minor "who recalled the extreme pressure she and other athletes felt from male coaches to keep their weight down," according to the report. "This pressure included an impossible expectation to curb the effects of puberty, as it would supposedly negatively affect their ability to compete."

As for the regions where these problems were most prevalent: "Analysis of these revelations revealed that the majority originated in Russia and India, and the most reported sports worldwide were aquatics and athletics," the agency said.

In cases that resulted in sanctions, the most common found doping substances found were the diuretic furosemide in Russia, the anabolic steroid stanozolol in India, and clenbuterol in China, according to the report. 

In weightlifting, stanozolol was the most common substance found. In athletics, it was the endurance-boosting hormone EPO. And in cycling, it was meldonium, WADA statted.

The report found that around 80% of positive tests led to sanctions, while others were for substances approved for therapeutic use. Some tests suggested systematic doping, including several minors testing positive for the same substance in samples taken on the same day. 

"Operation Refuge highlights a difficult but important issue," said Günter Younger, WADA's Director of Intelligence and Investigations, Günter Younger. "We are working to ensure that the experiences of those interviewed during this operation are not repeated.