Duncan Mackay: Setting up an independent anti-doping agency is Bach’s biggest challenge but could be his greatest legacy

 

Thomas Bach is presenting the expansion of the powers of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) as a fait accompli, even revealing yesterday that he hopes it will be up and running in February 2018 to coincide with the opening of the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang.

Under the new system proposed by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) President, the International Federations would contribute the money they currently spend on drugs testing to WADA, who would assume the responsibility instead. Sanctioning, meanwhile, would be taken over by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), meaning the Federations would have no control over either the testing or the punishment. 

It sounds the ideal solution to accusations of conflict of interest currently faced by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) and which in the past have led to many allegations at the International Cycling Union (UCI).

So far, only enthusiasm has been expressed for Bach‘s idea and most people can see the merit of such an organisation. 

But there are less than 800 days until the start of Pyeongchang 2018 and Bach‘s plan is still essentially little more than an idea sketched out on a piece of paper. There is no firm idea on how much it will cost, how many staff it is going to need and, perhaps most crucially of all, how it is going to be funded. 

According to WADA, its budget for this year was $28 million (£18 million/€25 million). The amount it has to spend on its activities has barely increased by ten per cent in the last decade. 

Yet, the most conservative estimate is that it will have to quadruple its budget at least if it is going to take over drugs testing for elite sport. Of the current amount WADA receives, half comes from the Governments around the world with that sum matched by the IOC. Among the two Governments who make the biggest contributions to WADA are Russia, who contribute approximately $1.3 million (£853 million/€1.2 million) each year, and China, who announced they were donating $1 million (£610,000/€770,000) to a new research fund launched by Bach.

Russia and China are both widely believed to be the two countries with the biggest drugs problems and a beefed-up WADA would only be taken seriously if it regularly caught dope cheats in those countries. I don’t think it would take many embarrassing cases involving a few high-profile athletes in those countries for them to begin questioning why they are helping to fund the downfall of their own sporting empires to the benefit of rivals. 

Bach was right in Lausanne yesterday when he said Governments are “always saying how important anti-doping is” and challenged them to contribute more to the global effort by joining the IOC in backing his initiative. But could Governments in Britain, France or the United States really justify increasing the amount they give to WADA to help keep sport clean when there are so many other pressures on their budgets in areas like health and defence?

The public could quite justifiably argue that if athletics wants a clean sport then it is up to them to pay for that, not the taxpayer in London, Paris or Los Angeles.

If getting the Governments to help fund this new anti-doping independent agency is going to be a tough sell, getting some of the sports to back it is also not going to be easy. 

Football has never truly brought into the idea of WADA since its launch in 1999 and appear unlikely to be willing to simply pass over their anti-doping budget to them now, especially with the new powers that the organisation would have and the fact that sentencing would be taken out of their hands. WADA have always suspected privately that football drugs tests are more about maintaining the veneer of making it look like they are taking the problem seriously rather than to catch anyone of note.

The nightmare scenario has always been that they will snare a high-profile Premier League or La Liga player who would have the financial wherewithal to hire expensive lawyers and drag the whole drug testing system through the courts. 

Richard Pound, the founding President of WADA and the Canadian lawyer who published the devastating Independent Commission report that led to the suspension of Russia by the IAAF following allegations of “state-supported” doping, told insidethegames last month that he thought Bach‘s proposal for a new anti-doping body was “more a suggestion which has been dropped into WADA’s mailbox, to say, think about it” rather than a fully-fledged idea. Bach, however, seems to be running with it and told insidethegames in Lausanne yesterday that “where’s there a will, there’s a way”.

The sheer energy of the German has to be admired and, when it comes to tackling doping, history will not judge him in the same unflattering light as one of his predecessors, Juan Antonio Samaranch, whose attitude towards the problem could, at best, be described as ambivalent. 

Samaranch caused a huge controversy in 1998 when he made some ill-advised comments in an interview with a Spanish newspaper. “Doping now is everything that, firstly, is harmful to an athlete’s health and, secondly, artificially augments his performance,” he said. “If it’s just the second case, for me that’s not doping.”

His remarks caused outrage, especially as they were made just a few weeks after the Tour de France had been wrecked by the Festina scandal, when a large haul of doping products was found in a car of the cycling team sponsored by the Swiss watch manufacturer just before the start of the race. The subsequent searching of many other teams during the race by the French police revealed systematic doping. The backlash helped lead the following year to the establishment of WADA. 

At the time, it was hailed as an historic moment in the fight against doping. Since then, WADA has been at the forefront of standardising the agreed list of banned substances, helping to restore the four-year ban in every sport for athletes who test positive and running an award-winning education programme that has helped raise awareness of the importance of clean sport among thousands of athletes around the world. Now the question is whether it can take another giant leap forward and take on even more responsibility for helping eradicate sport’s greatest cancer. 

If Bach can drive it through then it will be his greatest legacy to the Olympic Movement. 

Republished with permission insidethegames.biz

 

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