Anti-doping: Give WADA more owners and strengthen global commitment
Note: This comment piece was held as a keynote address to the WADA Symposium 2017 in Lausanne, Switzerland, 14 March 2017, under the title: “Good Governance in the Fight against Doping: What is the Perception from the “Outside”?”
When at the turn of the century, the newly elected WADA President and still Vice-President of the IOC, Richard W. Pound, paid a visit to Copenhagen to address one of Play the Game’s first conferences, while ignoring repeated warnings from other members of the Olympic family, he expressed the way he felt facing a potentially critical audience by quoting the film director Woody Allen.
Allen describes an idyllic situation in the future by saying: "And the lion will lie down with the lamb, but the lamb won’t get much sleep…."
With this anecdote I also declare immediately that with regard to WADA, I am not as neutral that I should perhaps be. In the 20 years Play the Game has advocated for democracy, transparency and freedom of expression in international sport, only one international organisation in the world of sport has been consistent in supporting an open, critical dialogue, and that organisation is WADA.
No matter who the president, no matter who the director general, WADA has not only accepted critical opposition, but actively embraced it and used it for self-reflection and development. This attitude has not always earned WADA friends in the Olympic family, but it has certainly given WADA a lot of credit elsewhere.
So when WADA has been so kind to ask me to speak about its governance seen from the outside, I very much appreciate that “outside” has been put in quotation marks, partly because of the inappropriate thankfulness that Play the Game owes to WADA, and partly because anti-doping has expanded wildly into a number of other areas in society. It is linked to legal issues, popular health issues, ethical issues, human rights issues, geopolitical issues – so many that it is actually hard to find a position on the “outside” of anti-doping, from where you can watch it with full objectivity.
Before I embark on further analysis I think it is fair to say that with regard to governance, WADA still has a unique and leading position in international sport when it comes to readiness to communicate with the society in which it is interwoven.
This may be one of the reasons WADA as an institution seems to maintain a relatively positive public image even during a devastating credibility crisis for international anti-doping.
However, WADA cannot lean back and let its stakeholders take the blame. In fact, WADA owes its existence to a widespread public trust that the use of doping can and should be countered, and any breach in that trust undermines WADA’s own existence.
The risk is public apathy
The main threat to WADA as we know it today does not come from the IOC, from the sports movement, from Russia or any other single country or institution. The real risk is public apathy and growing disengagement if the huge investments by taxpayers and fans are not responded to with convincing action.
Just like WADA has welcomed criticism over the years, WADA and its stakeholders should now roll out the red carpet for the credibility crisis and use it to leverage radical reform of itself and the way the whole sports integrity system works.
I would like to highlight a few important governance changes that can reverse the trend towards disillusion and revitalise the international fight against doping.
Not a governance crisis
But before doing so, it is important to remember that the current crisis, set off by corruption and doping in international and Russian athletics and deepened by the lack of leadership from the IOC, is not mainly a governance crisis.
Even the best governance system can be manipulated, even the best rules can be circumvented, if those in charge of enforcing them are determinate to cheat. If a federation president, or the government of a country, or the self-declared guardian of sporting values – if these people and institutions wants to betray their responsibilities, they can do so.
On the other hand, when over the past years we have heard from WADA officials that the system is not broken, it is only the willingness to make it efficient that is failing, this may be true, but it is not a very useful truth.
The system cannot be entirely separated from its primary agents, and if they are not willing to make it work, we have to make a better system.
Variety of challenges
A remake of WADA’s structure must take the context where it operates into account, and it is not a particular friendly one.
As a European sports leader expressed it in 2006, when he assumed the presidency over Europe’s biggest national sports organisation with 27 million members: “Wir stehen vor Herausforderungen erschreckender Größenordnung “ – we are facing challenges of a terrifying magnitude. His name was Thomas Bach, and the challenges has in no way become smaller in the past decade.
The most recent crisis in anti-doping has been exemplary in showing the variety of challenges. Let me run through a few of the most important.
Above all, in a sphere of its own, we have the geopolitical challenges. Nations big and small fight for glory and national prestige on the international arena that sport is offering. It is a paradox that a human activity that aspires so hard to be universal as Olympic sport does, draws a substantial part of its energy from fervent nationalism.
That is why any nation is in an inherent conflict of interest when engaging in the fight against doping. Knowing the public investments and political prestige there is at stake, it takes a lot of trust between politicians and nations to act as if we are all in the same boat with regard to an efficient fight against doping.
We are not: Some governments are ready to trade noble principles for golden medals, other are simply too poor to give anti-doping priority over much more urgent needs.
It would seem that a very destructive triangle is at work here: The more authoritarian a political system is, the more its need to raise its prestige among its people by showing it can produce international sporting success. The more the politicians need to shine in the light of medal winners – the less likely they are to support an efficient and independent anti-doping body.
Depending on stars
Sports federations, too, are in an objective conflict of interest. Like the nations, they depend on successful sports stars, not only for political pride, but also to ensure their standing in the intense global competition over sponsorships and media rights. This does not prevent individual sports leaders from engaging seriously in anti-doping, but the dilemma is obvious.
Simultaneously, the international federations are suffering from their own governance problems that undermine their credibility partners in any integrity battle. As you may know, Play the Game in 2015 launched the Sports Governance Observer report which showed among other things that the great majority of the federations are not even willing to share their annual financial reports with the public, they do not have proper democratic election procedures in place, and they will not reveal the perks and salaries their top executives enjoy.
The real enemies
Summing up: Neither governments nor sports federations can ultimately be trusted to combat doping efficiently, and yet they are the chosen ones to own and govern WADA.
With such partners in the fight against doping, would you really need enemies?
In fact, there are real enemies around who do not even have to pretend that they wish to combat doping. This was for the first time shown by the Italian anti-doping fighter Sandro Donati at the Play the Game conference way back in 2005, where he used open sources to draw a map of the global trade with sports drugs, providing solid evidence that this trade was often in the hands of the same criminal groups that had narcotics, illegal weapons, prostitutes and counterfeit products on their shelves.
WADA’s then Director General David Howman immediately invited Donati over to Montreal, and it took less than a year before a cooperation agreement with Interpol was sealed.
Since then, and with the growing realisation that also match-fixing and illegal gambling were assets of organised crime, WADA in general and Howman in particular has argued tirelessly that the global efforts to defend the overall integrity of sport should be better coordinated, and that it could happen on the basis of the experiences WADA has made so far.
I think reality supports the arguments of Howman overwhelmingly. Personally, I have argued for an international sports integrity body since 2006 – without any impressive success.
Firstly, very few would believe the situation were really that serious, and when gradually it dawned on most people that we are up against a well-organised billion-dollar business, the financial crisis would silence all calls for added public expenses.
Tone down moralism
So how do the standard sports and political leaders react when they realise they are losing a battle, but will lose too much prestige by admitting it? They react like most of us when we run short of arguments, they raise their voice and invoke a higher ethical justification. This is the fourth and last challenge I would like to mention.
Last week at the EU Sport Forum, professor Mike McNamee said bluntly: Athletes don’t dope. Systems do.
I will not go as far as to exonerate the individual athlete from his or her personal responsibility when doping. However, McNamee has a point, and I think we have to be careful to pass moral judgments. Today’s elite athletes are young people as they always were, but today they are driven not only by their own ambitions, but by complex systems of political, financial, fysiological, mental and medical support. These systems all depend on the peak performance of the individual athlete for their existence.
There are many reasons to believe that such systems exert a lot of pressure on the young, often inexperienced athletes, and for him or her it may take more moral strength that many of us have to stand up against that pressure.
Who are we to judge the morals of a young man or woman who has been put under pressure from systems, from parents and family, or perhaps from extreme poverty in his and her home town?
We are not here to promote individual moral, but to enforce clear and objective rules based on a collective sense of ethics. These rules are equal for all, and so is the protection of each individual against abuse of the rules.
This is why it worries me that since the Thomas Bach took office in 2013, a new expression has gained traction not only in the Olympic Family, but also at the heart of WADA. Over and over again, we hear that the goal is to “protect the clean athlete”.
You may say this is only motivational talk, public relations language, but language is not innocent. All athletes must enjoy protection, legal safety, fair treatment and a right to come out of their abuse.
Some dopers may even need much more protection than those we label “clean”.
Another potentially counterproductive cliché is “zero tolerance” towards doping. It is meant to express steadfast determination, but a closer look will reveal the impotence and ignorance contained in the slogan. May I suggest to replace it with the more realistic “0.1 percent tolerance” or “plenty of tolerance when required”.
The Norwegian Mads Drange who presided over the control department in his country’s anti-doping unit for 10 years, puts it very precisely in his book “The great doping bluff”:
Drange observes that the more we demonize those who dope, the louder we express outrage when an athlete finally is taken in a doping test, the more unforgiving we allow the public response to be – the more difficult it is for dopers to come forward, admit their guilt and re-start a doping-free life in sport.
Radical overhaul of governance
The geopolitics, the organised crime, the poor governance in sport, the exaggerated moralism – none of these four challenges will be overcome by governance reform in WADA.
It goes for WADA governance as for the governance of football, volleyball, handball and other sports: Good governance will not solve all problems, but without good governance no single problem will be solved.
So what should a radical overhaul of WADA’s governance look like?
Many great ideas have been brought to the table in the past months and as late as yesterday. I will spare you my comments to them all, but mention four aspects of WADA’s current structure which I would give maximum priority: the legitimacy, the mandate, the financing and the transparency.
When analysing the legitimacy of WADA, it is worth remembering that WADA was created in an atmosphere of a credibility crisis that is comparable to what we see today. It seems it takes a simultaneous blend of doping and corruption scandals to make leaps forward in the international sports policy, now as before.
As a response to the Festina Scandal in Tour de France 1998, the IOC had convened an anti-doping conference in Lausanne in 1999 with the ambition of keeping full control of the anti-doping efforts. However, in the light of the Salt Lake City corruption scandal the public trust in the IOC was at an all-time low, so a number of governments and transnational institutions forced the IOC to accept a 50/50 percentage share of the political power and financial responsibility.
This dual structure made sense two decades ago, but today it is evident that its days has expired.
Expanding WADA ownership
Some quite powerful voices argue that especially Olympic sport is in such conflict of interest that it should be thrown out of all WADA’s decision-making bodies. I disagree. I think the current crisis reveals, as I said earlier, that both sport and government are in a too deep conflict of interest to handle WADA on their own.
The solution is not to throw neither of them out and thus liberate them of a direct responsibility. The solution is to water their influence down, and to balance their conflicts of interest with the interests – and conflicts of interest - of other important stakeholders.
I would like to see WADA’s Foundation Board expanded to a Foundation Assembly in which all parties have a minority share. Among the stakeholders that could be added are the anti-doping laboratories, the national agencies, the sporting goods industry, the fitness sector, other corporate sponsors, World Health Organisation, athletes’ and trainers’ unions, Interpol, NGO’s working in human rights and anti-corruption, global bodies for education and science.
This Foundation Assembly should meet annually or biennially to lead strategic discussions and elect members to a more narrow Executive Committee. The elections should be held freely in a way that would reflect the broad composition and the shifting political currents of the constituents. No members of the Executive Committee should have current functions in sport and/or government, nor should they have a specific mandate to represent one or the other stakeholder group.
A broad alliance behind WADA will best ensure a broad societal commitment to sports integrity in the future.
And more: The stakeholders I have mentioned are all relevant for tackling doping, but they will also open the door for WADA to gradually take on other integrity challenges, such as matchfixing, betting, poor governance and public health – it would enable WADA to operate across sectors, benefit from synergies and transfer experiences wherever these challenges are similar or overlapping.
The essence of the anti-doping problem cannot be boiled down to the frailty and the desires of the individual human being. WADA must have the best expertise, the best networks available and the widest possible action range to understand and address the systemic components of doping and other threats to integrity, whether they are of biochemical, financial, political, legal or sporting nature.
One step to further address these wider issue is very simple. It can be realised by a simple modification of the present WADA code, and I have to admit my ignorance (if you did not already note it): Last summer, as an outsider, I was simply surprised to learn that these rules were not already in place.
What we miss, is the possibility to sanction the structures that surround and support the athlete as a precondition for a modern athlete career: The entourage, the agents, the team, the clubs, the federations, the confederations, the nations. Sanctions that will hit the collective bodies as hard as most sanctions hit the individual body of today. Suspensions, quarantines, exposure, fines.
Whatever the reasons for the privileges these collective structures have enjoyed so far, it was encouraging to hear the WADA President Craig Reedie mention yesterday that such initiatives are currently being considered by WADA’s compliance review committee.
Global integrity fund
The first question you will ask to this vision of expanding WADA’s working area, is of cours Who on earth should finance it? The annual 30 million US-dollar budget is already close to ridiculous, both compared to the tasks WADA is expected to solve and the financial muscles of the sector it is operating in.
When Benjamin Cohen at the EU Sport Forum last week jokingly said about WADA that “we have created a monster”, I would claim that it is still a monster with very limited scaring powers.
On that same meeting, I threw an idea of a 0.5% tax up in the air, only to learn a few days later that this idea had already been launched by someone much more competent, your former Director General David Howman who proposes a 0,5 % tax on all sponsor and broadcasting deals in the 800 billion dollar sports market. Such money would certainly make a huge difference.
Is it realistic? Yes, if the present owners of WADA: the governments and the International Olympic Committee are ready to put maximum pressure on the international sporting movement, conditioning public subsidies, hosting of events and participation in the Olympic Games on the willingness of sport governing bodies to pay such a tax – then it is just a technical matter to set up such fund.
But then again, is this effort realistic to expect from the IOC and the governments? Not at a first glance. Governments seems to have very little appetite for confronting the Olympic movement and put more work into their already undermanned sports departments.
The IOC on their side is reluctant to confront the international federations and to hand out authority – it sometimes seems it has never really forgiven WADA that it was conceived in a situation where the IOC had to give some control away.
Perhaps both parties should consider that taking no action will also come at a price, probably a greater price. IOC may still enjoys generous support from sponsors, media companies and quite a few authoritarian regimes. But it is not exactly on safe grounds in its traditional strongholds, the Western democracies.
The governments on their side must consider how long they will continue invest in anti-doping, talent development and elite sports policies, if the end result is that they send young athletes out to compete at the mercy of a scrupulous system, unable and unwilling to uphold the values it claim to represent, and in reality experimenting with young people’s health.
And when organised crime is allowed to continue to thrive in a sector like professional sport with its political and financial impact, this also comes at a very high cost for society.
Perhaps increased investments in sports integrity will actually pay off?
Transparency is key
Let me now conclude: I started this speech by commending WADA for its readiness to engage in open and critical dialogue. For almost two decades, I have admired WADA’s ability to openly admit its limits and deficiencies, and more than all I have been impressed by the transparent way WADA has prepared the revisions of the code – a completely open and easy access to all comments by all stakeholders on the WADA website. Simple, and yet rarely seen.
This is transparency at work, and there is no better way to enhance your credibility than by being transparent and honest.
There are thorns in this rosy picture. I do not think we have had a satisfying explanation on how WADA handled the first warnings it received on the Russian doping practices. And I have been astonished to see how WADA has honoured relatively small contributions to its research funds with jubilant press releases, even when the donor was a country with a less than glamorous reputation in anti-doping.
On the other hand, to witness how WADA’s response to the recent doping and corruption crisis evolved from being quite cautious and ambiguous to a very outspoken and independent position, has been encouraging and restored my confidence in WADA’s willingness to take new steps in its development.
The whistle-blower system that WADA has now set up will not only serve as a useful tool in future investigations and as a protection of vulnerable individuals. It also consolidates WADA’s obligation to build on something as essential as truth.
An absolute truth cannot always be established, but an organisation can prove its determination to be as objective and professional as possible, by being transparent and facilitating an open, public exchange of our respective truths and opinions.
When we at Play the Game arrange our tenth conference and celebrate our 20th anniversary in Eindhoven end November, I hope WADA and many of you in this hall, will once again engage in a critical and constructive give and take.
If I should reduce my comments to one single advice for WADA to keep and strengthen its legitimacy, it can be put very briefly.
Play true. And stay true.
- Read more about the 2017 WADA Symposium