I have an op-ed in today's Financial Times on the WADA IC report. You can also read it below.
This week’s revelations of systematic corruption in the Russian athletics programme caps an annus horribilis for global sport. It is far from what was hoped for in 2007, when scores of nations agreed to co-ordinate their responses to doping.
The resulting treaty was probably the first in the history of the UN to claim both Palestine and Israel as signatories. The harmonised approach has helped to uncover, and to some degree root out, systematic doping in professional cycling — no mean feat.
Yet, despite such notable successes, the bodies that govern sport are ill prepared for the unfolding crisis in athletics.
An independent commission of the World Anti-Doping Agency has accused Russia of pressing athletes to participate in a doping programme, shielding them from detection by doctoring the results of anti-doping tests and then extorting money from them by threatening to blow the lid on their state-sponsored wrongdoing. The allegations are so serious that the commission recommended banning Russian athletics from the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
The International Olympic Committee asked the international body that oversees athletics competitions to “initiate disciplinary procedures against all athletes, coaches and officials who have participated in the Olympic Games and are accused of doping in the report”. But this body — the International Association of Athletics Federations — is itself among the accused (although most of the details have been withheld in the Wada report to allow law enforcement investigations to proceed). Lamine Diack, who stepped down in August as president of the IAAF after 16 years, is under investigation by French prosecutors on suspicion of taking more than €1m in bribes in exchange for covering up adverse doping results.
Efforts to police doping have focused almost exclusively on identifying and penalising individual athletes. The Wada code, which sets out the rules governing doping, has more than 5,300 words about how to punish athletes who transgress, but only 47 words on penalties for sports bodies and nothing at all on nations that break the rules.
But sport needs clean administrators and clean politicians just as much as it needs clean athletes.
Addressing the present crisis in sport will not be easy. But there are a few steps that make immediate sense.
First, the focus of anti-doping efforts needs to be broadened beyond athletes to develop mechanisms to hold sports bodies accountable.
The challenges here are not unlike those that have come to light recently in international football. But spotting that you need governance to improve is not the same thing as improving it in practice.
Second, the entire problem of doping in sport needs to be opened up to discussion and debate. Better evidence is needed on the actual performance-enhancing benefits and health risks of specific substances. Such evidence might be compared with the benefits and risks of performance enhancing substances that are legal, such as caffeine. Substances whose effects are “in the noise” might simply be ignored.
Simplification is needed because science and budgets cannot keep up with technological innovation in human enhancement. In 2004 there were 40 stimulants on the Wada list. Now there are 66 — and this is just a subset of prohibited substances. As a practical matter, a more realistic, focused approach is needed.
On present form, this year will probably be remembered as one of crisis in international sport. But it just might be remembered as the one that dragged sporting standards — and the sanctions for breaking them — into the 21st century.