First charges brought in US under new anti-doping law

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A Texas therapist has been charged by US prosecutors for allegedly supplying Olympic athletes, including Nigerian sprinter Blessing Okagbare, with performance enhancing drugs (AFP/Giuseppe CACACE)
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A Texas therapist who supplied performance-enhancing drugs to Olympic athletes, including suspended Nigerian sprinter Blessing Okagbare, has become the first person charged under a new US anti-doping law.

US justice department officials in New York said Eric Lira, a 41-year-old "naturopathic" therapist based in El Paso, supplied drugs to two athletes for the "purpose of corrupting" the Tokyo Games.

The case is the first time charges have been brought under the Rodchenkov Act -- a law introduced in the United States in 2020 in the wake of Russia's state-backed doping scandal.

The law, named after Russian whistleblower Grigory Rodchenkov, enables US authorities to prosecute individuals involved in international doping fraud conspiracies.

US attorney Damian Williams said the charges announced Wednesday sent "a strong message to those who would taint the (Olympic) Games and seek to profit from that corruption."

"At a moment that the Games offered thousands of athletes validation after years of training, Eric Lira schemed to debase that moment by peddling illegal drugs," Williams said in a statement.

An unsealed indictment said the case arose from an investigation into efforts to supply Olympic athletes with banned performance-enhancing drugs such as human growth hormone and the blood-boosting drug erythropoietin (EPO) ahead of last year's Tokyo Olympics.

Investigators said Lira obtained misbranded versions of human growth hormone and EPO, along with other prescription drugs, from Central and South America, before bringing them into the United States to supply to athletes.

Although not named, details in the indictment clearly identify Florida-based Nigerian sprint star Okagbare as one of the athletes alleged to have used drugs supplied by Lira.

The 33-year-old was thrown out of the Olympics last year before the women's 100m semi-finals after testing positive for human growth hormone at an out-of-competition test in Slovakia on July 19. The indictment refers to an athlete testing positive for HGH on July 19 in Slovakia before later being suspended from the women's Olympic 100m finals.

- Encrypted messages -

The indictment included encrypted correspondence from Okagbare -- identified only as "Athlete 1" -- and Lira where the Nigerian testifies to the effectiveness of the substances following Olympic trials in Lagos on June 17, where she clocked a wind-assisted 10.63sec in the 100m.

"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," Okagbare wrote.

In a later message, Lira said Okagbare was poised to "dominate" in Tokyo.

"What you did . . . is going to help you for the upcoming events," Lira wrote. "You are doing your part and you will be ready to dominate."

The indictment also included details of further exchanges between Okagbare and Lira after she is informed of her positive test.

"Call me urgently. . . [t]hey said one of my result came out positive on HGH . . . I don't understand," Okagbare wrote.

The communications were discovered when US officials examined a mobile phone in Okagbare's possession as she re-entered the United States following her ejection from the Tokyo Games.

Messages on Okagbare's phone revealed the sprinter had been working with Lira from at least 2020.

The case against Okagbare and the other unidentified athlete came to light after a whistleblower found evidence of performance-enhancing substance use at their residence in Jacksonville, Florida, including drugs, vials and needles on July 12-13 last year.

"This is a wonderful example of the power of whistleblowers coming forward to trusted anti-doping agencies and law enforcement to ensure the protection of the Olympic Games," United States Anti-Doping Agency chief Travis Tygart said in a statement on Wednesday.

Tygart said the Rodchenkov act had always been seen as a "game-changer for the good of clean sport."

"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."

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