Last week’s World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) Independent Observers report into drugs testing procedures at Rio 2016 felt like a snapshot of every major story we have written this year.
Incompetent organisation by Rio 2016, check.
Worrying revelations about anti-doping procedures in sport, check.
A nauseating press release from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) taking a different perspective from everyone else, check.
Virtually the only thing missing was a reference on page 43 to how Russian (ex-) Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko had appeared halfway through brandishing a test tube full of urine and shouting about politically influenced conspiracies…
To start with the first point, the report could probably be used as a case study to typify any area of the Organizing Committee’s operations.
Rio 2016, it transpired, had a mysterious feud which meant they refused all cooperation with the Brazilian Anti-Doping Agency. Chaperones and others working in doping control were trained poorly and looked after even worse.
Their accommodation frequently changed and was often far away, while there were no specific transport plans, no advanced rota and no free meals to mitigate the hardship of a long shift. Most typically of all, Rio 2016 officials appear to ignore most of the advice they were given, or promised they would make changes yet failed to do so.
“For reasons that were never very clear, rosters were often communicated in fairly chaotic fashion,” read the section on planning…and “often very late in the day prior to the next day, and sometimes changes were made to the rosters but not communicated properly or in a timely fashion to the test scheduling team.”
In another responses to a suggestion to hire extra doping control offices; “This instruction was acknowledged and accepted by the Rio 2016 general manager but then not actioned.”
Then: “After a week of delay, Rio 2016 advised that this additional resource would not be pursued because of (among other things), difficulties in getting new accreditations, lack of access to uniforms, and lack of time for training. This was very disappointing.”
Perhaps my own personal highlight was a section revealing how Rio 2016 had missed the opportunity to provide anti-doping educational information to athletes waiting for testing, beyond “one or two posters” across all venues.
“In the circumstances, however, this was the least of Rio’s problems,” conclude the observers in a similar world-weary tone to that which we journalists had taken when asking for the 10th successive day about the discrepancy between empty seats and official ticket sales.
Two key questions here concern to what extent these problems were avoidable from the IOC perspective and to what extent this fundamentally affected the efficiency of the anti-doping operation at Rio 2016.
To some extent, there appears little the IOC and other sports officials could have changed the approach of the organizers. Brazil and chaotic preparation are just too closely entwined and, when the budget cuts and political disruption is considered, it is a miracle the Olympic and Paralympic Games happened at all.
Yet, on the other hand, the IOC had seven years to get this one right and were not exactly strapped for cash to provide more support.
We were told over and over again ahead of the Games about how Rio made cuts only in non-essential areas in order “maximize” their budget, and, in the words of the IOC, to make it more “economically sustainable.”
But, hold on, now it appears that a contract to source 25 local phlebotomists to collect blood samples had been slashed shortly beforehand. The blood testing operation was, therefore, severely limited and, in many sports, non-existent. This is even more concerning when you consider that blood testing was also considered a problem in the London 2012 WADA Independent Observers report.
Surely the IOC’s “zero tolerance” approach towards doping could stretch to a permanent official there to liaise with organizers? And, after the problems seen at Sochi 2014 and then at Rio 2016, could anti-doping not form a more serious part of the bidding process? Or, at the very least, of IOC Coordination Commission inspections?
So how far did these problems affect the anti-doping operation?
The WADA team, let’s not forget, were under pressure here after their complete failure to notice the alleged manipulation of samples at Sochi 2014. The 55-page report spearheaded by British lawyer Jonathan Taylor is duly more detailed than the 34-page one on Sochi and the 13-page one in London and they appear determined not to get it wrong again.
Out of all the reports they have conducted over the last five years, only the one on the 2015 All-African Games in Brazzaville comes even close in the criticism stakes. Even so, after members of the Sochi 2014 team admitted to us how they feared never being given work again by the IOC if they did not focus on the positives, you wonder if they could have concluded even more critically this time around?
They assert that, “generally, the integrity of the process was not undermined”, but, as is often the way with these things, positive conclusions are not always backed-up by the nitty gritty details.
The IOC were in no doubt, and my colleague Liam Morgan has already put their gushing press release trumpeting a “successful anti-doping program” to the sword. It bolstered our view that the IOC need a radical rethink of their communications strategy. Facing spin with similar levels of competence to the England cricket team, they have once again made a situation worse with a condescending attempt to switch the agenda which insulted the intelligence of everyone who read it.
Clearly, there were some positive aspects. The intelligence-led approach focusing on quality rather than quantity was certainly one, showcased by their Pre-Games Intelligence Task Force, while their increasing use of the Athlete Biological Passport system was another.
Security also gets a resolute green light, although I sincerely doubt the Brazilians would have been competent enough to even consider a system as sophisticated as the one allegedly undertaken by Russia during Sochi 2014. A private team guarded the laboratory alongside 180 surveillance cameras, including one permanently displaying the cold storage room in which samples were kept.
But daily targets for out-of-competition testing were “rarely met” and were often “only 50 per cent or less” of planned figures. As mentioned already, blood testing was rudimentary, while only 28.62 per cent of the 11,303 athletes competing at Rio 2016 were tested. There were also “non-conformities” in the processing of around 30 per cent of samples received; in comparison to 10 percent at London 2012.
As it stands, we can only agree that “it was only due to the enormous resourcefulness and goodwill of some key doping control personnel working at the Games that the process did not break down entirely.”
It would be good to have some more follow-up inquiries, but I fear that sport will try and evade even more public criticism.
There were, however, some serious conclusions that we can make already. In total, 4,125 athletes competing at Rio 2016 were found to have no record of being tested this year. Even more worryingly, 1,913 of these had come from the 10 sports deemed to be at the highest risk.
This, according to the report, highlighted the “inadequacy” of test distribution planning by International Federations and National Anti-Doping Organisations in these sports. Results of the intelligence testing subsequently carried-out also “potentially indicated that the athletes in question had not expected to be tested and thought they could dope right up to the Games with impunity.”
This is deeply concerning considering the year we have had.
WADA also felt the need to point-out that there was no out-of-competition testing in football and “limited” testing for “Erythropoiesis-Stimulating Agents” in swimming, cycling and athletics endurance events. There was also “little or no” blood testing took place in weightlifting, the most drug-addled sport of all if retested samples from Beijing 2008 and London 2012 are anything to go by.
Clearly, the organisation of Rio 2016 was at least partly to blame for this, but the singling out of these sports suggests that they were worse than the norm. And in the case of weightlifting, whose officials constantly claim to catch more athletes because their procedures are more stringent than those in other sport, this is not good enough.
Another nugget buried in the report is that one unnamed International Federation delegate was “so upset with the perceived lack of collaboration that he effectively withdrew all cooperation with the doping control personnel working at his IF’s event.”
While many anti-doping officials still have doubts about the envisaged “independent” testing system due to come in by Pyeongchang 2018, the evidence here further suggests that the conduct of Ifs is not good enough.
Overall, the WADA report is a brilliant exercise in the incompetence of Rio 2016, further showing how, despite the brilliance of sporting performances, the first South American Games were far from “marvelous” (©Thomas Bach) in an organizational sense.
Yes, some elements of the program as well as the wider backs against the wall mentality does deserve praise, and it does seem that the crux of the problem was Brazilian inefficiency rather than fundamental shortcomings.
But certainly the report does, on the whole, produce more bleak reading on sport’s overall ability to combat doping.
By Nick Butler
Republished with permission from insidethegames.biz.