Man charged with giving Olympic athletes performance drugs

Sports

Blessing Okagbare, of Nigeria races in a women’s 200 meter heat at the World Athletics Championships in Doha, Qatar, Sept. 30, 2019. U.S. prosecutors charged a Texas man on Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2022 with providing performance-enhancing drugs to athletes competing in the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, including Okagbare. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty, file)

NEW YORK (AP) — U.S. prosecutors charged a Texas man on Wednesday with providing performance-enhancing drugs to athletes competing in last summer’s Olympics in Tokyo, including the star Nigerian sprinter Blessing Okagbare.

Eric Lira, 41, of El Paso, is the first person to be charged under a new U.S. anti-doping law governing international sports competitions.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Manhattan said Lira distributed the drugs, including human growth hormone and erythropoietin, a blood-building hormone, “for the purpose of corrupting” the 2020 Games, which were held in 2021 because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Lira also is accused of conspiring to violate drug misbranding and adulteration laws. It was not immediately clear whether he had an attorney who could comment on the charges.

“It’s not winning if you take illegal substances — it’s cheating,” FBI Assistant Director Michael J. Driscoll said in a statement.

The criminal complaint identifies Okagbare only as “athlete 1,” but it includes details, including her performances in specific races, that make it clear she was one of Lira’s clients. A text message was sent to Okagbare seeking comment.

Okagbare had been provisionally suspended for testing positive for human growth hormone in July 2021 — in an out-of-competition test — just hours before the former world championships silver medalist was due to run in the semifinals of the women’s 100 meters at the Olympics. A criminal complaint unsealed Wednesday in Manhattan federal court described that suspension.

The Athletics Integrity Unit last year said Okagbare also had tested positive for a blood booster in Nigeria in June. She was charged with failing to cooperate with the investigation after she disobeyed an order to produce “documents, records and electronic storage devices” in relation to the other charges, the AIU said at the time.

“When it’s time to say anything, I will and it will be worth the wait,” Okagbare tweeted last year.

The criminal complaint alleges that Lira, a kinesiologist and naturopathic doctor, brought “misbranded” versions of the drugs to the United States from Central and South America before distributing them to athletes.

Federal authorities searched Okagbare’s cellphone as she was returning to the United States from Tokyo and found she had frequently communicated with Lira over an encrypted app, according to the complaint.

“Is it safe to take a test this morning?” Okagbare wrote in one message to Lira, according to the complaint. “Remember I took it Wednesday and then yesterday again. I wasn’t sure so I didn’t take a test.”

In another exchange, Okagbare wrote Lira that she had just run the 100m in 10.63 seconds. News reports detailed Okagbare running a race in that time a few days before the message was sent. “Eric my body feel so good,” she wrote. “Whatever you did is working so well.”

“You are doing your part and you will be ready to dominate,” Lira wrote to the athlete.

The charges against Lira were brought under the Rodchenkov Act, a law signed in 2020 that prohibits “any person, other than an athlete,” to knowingly influence any “major international sports competition” with the use of prohibited substance. ___

AP national writer Eddie Pells contributed reporting from Denver.

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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