If you want a near-perfect example of how some major sporting governing bodies appear to view image and perception as more important than honesty and clarity, look no further than the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) response to the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) Independent Observers (IO) report from Rio 2016.
It is the comments made by IOC medical and scientific director Richard Budgett which rankle most. “The IO report shows that it was a successful Olympic Games with a successful anti-doping program,” the IOC press release quotes him as saying.
Budgett is not quite finished there. “The integrity of the program was ensured despite some challenges the Organizing Committee had to overcome,” he adds.
Granted, some elements of the anti-doping process at the Rio 2016 Olympics were indeed praised, such as the improvements made to avoid a repeat of the alleged problems outlined in the McLaren Report into illicit sample-swapping at the Sochi 2014 Laboratory.
But the standout headline was the fact that the WADA IO found a number of “serious failings” at Rio 2016 when it came to anti-doping. Ranging from highlighting that “little or no” in-competition blood testing was carried out in many high risk sports and disciplines, including weightlifting, to flagging “tensions” between organizers and the Brazilian Anti-Doping Agency (ABCD), the 55-page report makes for pretty grim reading.
The charge sheet continued with claims that there was a distinct “lack of coordination or unified approach among the management team in the Rio 2016 anti-doping department during the Games itself”, which led to a lack of “knowledge transfer” from previous Olympics.
Not only that, but the report also uncovered a worrying statistic. It revealed more than 4,000 athletes had not been tested before the Games in the Brazilian city – all this at a time when the credibility of sport is on its knees following the Russian scandal, when allegations of state-sponsored doping have rocked the Olympic Movement to its core.
Yet if you only get your news from the IOC, you would have thought all was well with the world. The “nothing to see here folks” attitude has become increasingly frequent within communications departments across the sporting landscape and it was particularly apparent in the IOC’s response to the document, which cast a long shadow over the anti-doping procedures at Rio 2016.
In his defense, Budgett did accept that the Organising Committee had faced “challenges,” with the IOC statement going on to admit there was “a lack of resources and trained volunteers/staff” at the Games when it came to drug testing.
All of these tests were passed, the IOC said, “thanks to the dedication and expertise of Rio 2016 and international staff and volunteers.”
Credit where credit is due here. Judging by the findings of the report, the anti-doping system at Rio 2016 teetered on the brink of collapse and the fact that it did not crumble completely is testament to the efforts of those who dealt with what the document described as “entirely avoidable” issues.
Journalists are often criticized in this day and age for being too negative but there was little doubt what the top line was when the WADA IO report was unleashed on the world. There was little doubt where the attention should be focused.
But the IOC, among others, seemingly ignored this. Why? One possible explanation could be simply that the document, while not criticizing the body led by President Thomas Bach directly and not accusing them of any fault, was largely critical about a part of an event the IOC has ultimate jurisdiction over. They were thus attempting to defend their pride and save face.
Another could be the image is everything mantra which many a governing body and International Federations lives by today; as long as they keep insisting nothing is wrong, people will continue to believe them. Organisations are petrified of less than favorable articles among the world’s press and to combat this they often refuse to speak to journalists or ban them from attending key meetings or Congresses, instead delivering the message as they hope it will be told. It is a tactic which exists even amid calls from the IOC for International Federations to improve transparency.
As for others, who knows? Perhaps those among the Brazilian public in particular have reached their wit’s end as a result of the negative headlines Rio 2016 attracted in the build-up to, during and after the Olympics. Perhaps they wish we would all be like the IOC’s press department rather than the international media.
One member of the Twittersphere took exception to a Tweet from my colleague Nick Butler, who had dared to write: “#WADA Independent Observers report blasts role of #Rio2016 in Games-time anti-doping program…” in the immediate aftermath of the report being published.
“Even months after the Rio Olympics, the press just can’t stop talking about #rio2016 You guys suck so much,” the respondent wrote.
To coin the phrase of the author, if anything sucked it was the logistical arrangements made by Rio 2016 to support the samples collection process at the Games.
It was the poor accommodation, shift-patterns and food arrangement for laboratory staff which “disincentivized chaperones to report for shifts and/or to stay for the duration.”
It was the astonishing finding that “no out-of-competition testing was conducted in football.”
It is these problems, these difficulties which tell the real story. It is a shame this was clearly lost among the IOC.
By Liam Morgan
Republished with permission from insidethegames.biz.