Accusations of state-directed doping in Russian Olympic sport have sent a shockwave
through the entire movement, the like of which has been unseen since the Salt Lake City
On both sides of the argument there have been accusations and allegations,
leading to anger and calls for recrimination. Even before the publication of the McLaren
Report, there were demands for a blanket ban on all Russian athletes from the Rio 2016
Yet summary justice is not what is required at so grave a time for all sport. If the
public and athletes are to have faith in the Olympic movement’s handling of important
issues with long-term impacts for all its stakeholders, its response must be considered
and legally robust.
A short-term ban would, perhaps, satisfy the shrill voices calling for blood.
Perhaps it would not be enough for them. But would it really achieve anything in the
If it is not properly formulated and implemented, there will always be a risk for
the ban to be overturned through the courts. This has happened before in the Olympic
movement’s response to doping issues. (Remember the Osaka Rule?) The reputational
cost of a climbdown, to say nothing of the legal fees, would hardly be worth paying.
Banning today’s athletes also does nothing to correct the injustices of yesterday.
McLaren’s mandate did not extend to recommendation for the sanctioning of athletes. A
follow-up is clearly required to ensure that results of past competitions can be corrected
and that the right athletes receive medals wherever appropriate.
Sport needs to carry out a sober analysis of where we are and how we have got
here. A blanket ban risks being a distraction from the underlying, wide-reachingissues, and as the McLaren Report shows, these are many. Is the World Anti-Doping Agency adequately resourced to meet the challenge of the dopers if those dopers are the
security services of nation states, having their agents accredited to home Olympics as
Sport has faced systematic doping before – Lance Armstrong’s Tour de France
team for instance – but it was only finally overcome by the US Department of Justice’s
grand-jury testimony, won through the widespread use of subpoenas.
Is the WADA approach even valid anymore?
It is 16 years since the former Olympic champion Frank Shorter told me at the
Sydney Olympics of the US’s intention to support an extension of the war on drugs with
a global anti–doping agency for sport.
But as several US states legalise formerly outlawed narcotics, what the failure of
the war on drugs has shown us is that merely tackling the foot-soldiers of the drugs trade
is futile. Take one down and there will always be another to step in to their place.
The same must be said of WADA drugs tests and bans for individual athletes.
There need to be proper investigative powers for WADA to uncover who is directing the
doping programmes further up the food chain.
At the moment it is mostly the media that have uncovered the most egregious
examples of doping to light – the German TV channel ARD in the Russia case, the UK’s
Sunday Times newspaper in Armstrong’s. There needs to be a proper recognition of the
media’s role in keeping sport clean, where their legitimate campaign for integrity is
acknowledged and appreciated, not treated like an obnoxious intrusion into the affairs of
sport and its administrators.
Whenever it becomes clear that a culture needs changing, the light shone by
outsiders should be welcomed. To restore public confidence, the time is now for those
International Federations whose governance structures might seem to others to be arcane or conflicted to open up to proper external scrutiny.
There should be a review of the practices WADA and sports governing bodies
have in place for whistleblowers, too. A simple online form is not going to reassure
someone who might be taking great risks to their personal safety to tell the authorities of
their fellow competitors’ cheating.
And what of those risks? The involvement of the FSB in the Russian affair
reinforces the moral hazard of punishing individuals. What would have become of those
athletes who stood up to the doping regime? In the press conference convened for the
release of the report, Richard McLaren said that many Russians refused to cooperate
with his investigation due to “concern for their own personal safety.”
And if those were the risks in standing up to the regime and speaking out against it, what of the rewards for being a part of it? Russia explicitly incentivises athletes to medal with its financial bonus system. This is all very well but it drives spikes in performance at key points in the cycle of the sport calendar rather than consistent improvement day by day, year by year. Surely the way Olympic athletes are incentivised to perform at the
Olympic Games is something the IOC and its Athletes Commission has the power to
consider. They must aim for a system that empowers sporting ambition but also discourages gambling with health.
It is clear that one of the most influential figures in that regime, Russia’s sports
minister, Vitaly Mutko, has a huge case to answer. McLaren found him to be “singularly
unhelpful” in the investigation stage of this scandal and to have personally intervened in ensuring the results of one footballer’s positive test were switched. What will become of him? Clearly there will be calls for him and other ministry of sport officials to go.
How the public will react to the latest scandal so close to Rio remains to be seen.
But the threat to sport and athletes’ reputations right now could be existential. They both
should now embrace transparency and this is key to the cultural shift now required of all
sports institutions across everything governance-related. Publish the Testosterone/Epitestosterone ratios of competitors, benchmarked against those of nonathletes so we can all see what WADA sees.
It is clear that the International Federations should be responsible for their own
sports and they should be the custodians of eligibility. But they must not work in
isolation. The Association of Summer Olympic International Federations should
coordinate an intelligence-sharing initiative and kitemark each one’s efforts. It is a role
the International Olympic Committee could play, however these problems are pressing
and will not occur only once every four years.
What is very clear is that now, more than ever, the IOC must show leadership, just
as it did when the decision to set up WADA was taken. Its interests lie fundamentally in
maintaining clean sport and keeping athletes healthy. It must cater to the best interests of its sports, not the base interests.
This is time for long-term action, not mere reaction.
This story first appeared in the blog, The Sport Intern. The editor is Karl-Heinz Huba of Lorsch, Germany. He can be reached at ISMG@aol.com. The article is reprinted here with permission of Huba.