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US therapist pleads guilty in Blessing Okagbare Olympic doping case

NEW YORK – A Texas therapist faces up to 10 years in prison after pleading guilty on Monday to supplying performance-enhancing drugs to Olympic athletes, including banned Nigerian sprinter Blessing Okagbare, United States authorities said.

Eric Lira, a “naturopathic” therapist based in the city of El Paso, is the first individual to be convicted under a new US law introduced in the wake of Russia’s state-backed Olympic doping scandals, the Department of Justice said in a statement.

The 2020 law, named after Russian whistleblower Grigory Rodchenkov, enables US authorities to prosecute individuals involved in international doping fraud conspiracies.

Lira was found to have supplied drugs to Okagbare in the build-up to the pandemic-delayed Tokyo Olympics in 2021.

Okagbare, who was subsequently banned from the sport for 10 years, was expelled from the Tokyo Games just before the women’s 100m semi-finals.

It had emerged that she had tested positive for human growth hormone in an out-of-competition test in Slovakia before the start of the global showpiece.

US Attorney Damian Williams said on Monday after Lira pleaded guilty in a federal court in Manhattan that the case was a “watershed moment for international sport”.

“Lira provided banned performance-enhancing substances to Olympic athletes who wanted to corruptly gain a competitive edge,” he said.

“Such craven efforts to undermine the integrity of sport subverts the purpose of the Olympic games – which is to showcase athletic excellence through a level playing field.

“Lira’s efforts to pervert that goal will not go unpunished.”

Athletes who obtained the drugs from Lira were not all identified, but the Athletics Integrity Unit, a independent anti-doping body, said they were Okagbare and fellow Nigerian Divine Oduduru, who is facing a potential six-year ban.

The maximum sentence for violating the Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act is 10 years in prison. Lira’s sentence will be determined by a judge at a later date, the Department of Justice statement added.

US anti-doping officials welcomed Lira’s conviction, noting that it was made possible only by the recently enacted law.

“Without this law, Lira, who held himself out as a doctor to athletes, likely would have escaped consequence for his distribution of dangerous performance-enhancing drugs and his conspiracy to defraud the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games because he did not fall under any sport anti-doping rules,” said Travis Tygart, who is the chief executive of the United States Anti-Doping Agency. AFP, BLOOMBERG