It was a week ago that a fuse was lit on the latest doping crisis, when the WADA-mandated Independent Commission (IC) released their report on their investigation into Russian doping and corruption. It confirmed what many knew, and added details that should sober up anyone who feels doping is a minor problem.
One person who wouldn’t have been taken by surprise is Renee Anne Shirley. If you’ve been following the story, either in the media or on Twitter, you’ll know Shirley, because she’s been absolutely prolific, both in sharing her opinion and links to media coverage of the story. Shirley may also be known to you as the ‘whistleblower’ who revealed the laxity of the testing in Jamaica in the run-up to the London Olympic Games, so she knows a thing or two about revealing an uncomfortable truth to people who do not want to hear it.
I’ve been so impressed by her tweets that I felt it was vital to give her a fuller chance to explain her stance and beliefs. I know that Twitter is so constrained that it’s difficult to do so, and the insights she was offering were really very impressive and needed to be heard in full.
So I reached out to her to ask if she’d respond to a few questions, mostly focused on the future of anti-doping and her suggested solutions for WADA, the IAAF and the IOC. She very kindly agreed, and went way beyond what even I expected to provide some fantastically detailed answers.
Here is that interview.
Background & origins
RT: You’ve been very vocal about the Independent Commission’s report on Russia’s state-sponsored doping programme and its implications for world sport and anti-doping. In one of your recent series of tweets, you ended off by saying, and I quote: “All of my comments re the fight against doping in sport come from the heart, and with my rose-tinted glasses discarded several years ago…” Perhaps by way of introducing yourself, you can tell us the story of how they were discarded, and where you currently find yourself in the global sporting landscape.
RAS: I have been an avid sport fan from my teenage years and felt that most athletes, particularly my heroes, were clean athletes who were getting a raw deal competing against other athletes with more resources and who were doping.
I was working as an Advisor to the current Jamaican Prime Minister, Portia Simpson Miller, in 2003 when in her capacity as Minister of Sport, she was asked to sign the Copenhagen Declaration which is the document committing countries to doing their part in the fight against doping in sport.
I was given responsibility for overseeing the development of Jamaica’s Anti-Doping in Sport Programme (2003-2007). My goal was not just to put a programme in place but to protect Jamaican clean athletes and find those who were cheating and sanctioning them.
But the more involved I got the more I learnt about what I like to refer to as the ‘threads in the spider’s web’ – that’s to say there are interwoven links between doping by elite athletes (who want to gain a competitive edge) and corruption in sport governance that is both wide and deep and covers the entire globe.
At first I was skeptical, but the more I researched, spoke to athletes, coaches, agents, law enforcement officials, major sport administrations, chemists, doctors the more I started to see the enormity of the issue. I struggled to try to show that this was not possible. Perhaps one of the “ah ha” moments for me was when a former agent who had managed many global stars from JA, Caribbean, African, UK/European/USA athletes looked at me and stated “For someone who knows so much you are rather naïve…Do you want to see the truth or hang on to your dreams?” It was a sobering moment for me.
My current position is that doping is prevalent at the elite level across sport & across nations. Testing now being carried out is largely ineffective and most cheaters are not being caught. A tremendous about of money (usually taxpayers $$) is being thrown at testing but is simply being wasted and the touted World Anti-Doping Programme needs major overhaul with an emphasis on being more accountable/effective. Also testing, in and of itself, is not the answer (it’s too easy for serious dopers to not get caught). What is needed is a robust system of investigation/testing and education.
RT: Monday’s report has been the subject of some excellent coverage, some mediocre coverage. I don’t want to rehash the response to the allegations, but I am interested in your views, because a) you have personal experience and inside knowledge, and b) you’ve been strongly outspoken and critical of all the role-players, from the IAAF to the IOC and WADA. I’ve noticed you’ve said much less about Russia, other than to use them as a flag for what is happening elsewhere (or everywhere). Given that you’ve spent several years watching without rose-tinted glasses, what would you say is the root cause of the current problem?
RAS: The root cause of the current problem is the desire to win and to push the envelope as much as possible to gain a competitive edge. Most athletes and their support personnel feel that it is imperative to keep up with technological/scientific/nutritional advances as they see their competitors becoming stronger/fitter/faster.
For gifted young athletes & their parents, they are being pressured to have the youngsters specialize from an early age, to commit to one sport & to make the sacrifices to become one of the few who will be an elite athlete. That push translates over into the transition from high-school to college/professional level. The temptations are there to bulk up in order to train harder/longer/recover from injuries faster.
The ease of purchase of unregulated nutritional supplements via the Internet is a clear and present danger and added to the lack of testing in most countries and sport it is easy to give into temptation as small gains can have a huge impact. At the elite level the key “danger zones” are a) young-up-and-coming athletes wanting to break through on national teams & remain there, b) those athletes who want to prolong their careers and c) those coming off serious injuries. Triggers for targeting are athletes who lower their personal bests significantly in a short period of time, and physical body changes, etc.
Health check on anti-doping
RT: How would you sum up the health of sport’s anti-doping as of today? And more specifically, did the Commission’s report do anything to change your perception?
RAS: The WADA Independent Commission’s Report has not surprised me. While others have been expressing amazement about the depth and breadth of the scale of the doping uncovered, I expected this. In fact what has been reported is really the ‘tip of the iceberg’ of what is taking place in Russia in athletics and in other sport (Summer/Winter Olympic sport). The saga represents a window into the problem of massive doping coupled with corruption that pervades major sport today.
But while others are getting caught up in the fascination about “second lab”, secret agents in labs, bribing corrupt officials, tip-off to athletes before testing, and the fact that we are dealing with post-Soviet Russia, this is not a rogue country standing alone. Much of what we have been told is known/suspected for years but is prevalent (albeit at a less sophisticated scale) in other countries today. The Soviet/GDR techniques have been learnt by many and are being used extensively by athletes/coaches/entourages across the globe in order to win at all cost.
Future focus – the cleanup
RT: Let’s look to the future. A few days ago, you wrote that Sebastian Coe needs a “fearless CEO who is not an insider, who has cojones and the willingness to expose corruption within the system”. And that “if Coe and the IAAF resist a clear separation of power (real not just perceived) then it will simply be the usual exercise of PR and spin that has been the hallmark of major sport”. Can you elaborate a little on this, and explain what this CEO should do, and why Coe and other insiders cannot do it themselves?
RAS: I am not sure that the general public can truly appreciate the incestuous interwoven connections between corruption and the breakdown of good governance practices and accountability within the major sport administrations. Most notable recently are IAAF and FIFA which are led by a small group of insiders (typically former gold medal/World Cup stars who translated their fame into positions in their local federations and then moving up to the international federation level, and eventually into the inner sanctum where unregulated power and billions of dollars lie).
That process of gaining local power then international power is at play in all countries – a small club that many seek to gain entry into, and in order to do so you have to play by the rules. In my opinion, it will be impossible for Coe or any insider to effect change by himself. There is no will to change within the system whose sole aim is to for the system to remain the same and to resist change. But the membership structure calls for election of President from within.
Therefore, for there to be any semblance of change within IAAF itself the greatest good that Coe can do is to push through the need to hire a tough no-nonsense CEO with a strong work ethic/record who is not a sport insider with no baggage brought to the table. Coe needs to:
- Head-hunt such an individual and give him/her a free hand in cleaning out the current executive staff.
- Order a forensic audit of the operations of the IAAF (including its Anti-Doping Department).
- Outsource anti-doping investigation, testing and anti-doping rule violations (positives) case management to an independent agency. In this regard the IAAF will provide the funding but not have ANY involvement in determining who to test/investigate/prosecute.
Coe himself will have to be the architect of this reform – he has to be committed to it and champion the need to separate power between IAAF and an independent executive arm. This is a full-time job and I agree with the idea that Coe should be adequately compensated for doing this job, but he needs to place a firewall between the Council & CEO/the Secretariat.
WADA and anti-doping reform
RT: Looking even more broadly, the Independent Commission identified some flaws or failures at the system level of anti-doping. They included the conflict of interests created when nations are tasked with policing the doping practices from which they may actually benefit, and also WADA’s limited powers to intervene at the state/system level.
I suspect most people would agree that while the establishment of WADA and its creation of an anti-doping code was a step forward, it hasn’t managed to achieve all it set out to, and this scandal creates either an opportunity or necessity to change things.
Let’s imagine we could totally “reboot” the system. You have a blank canvas, there is nothing going on, everyone is an ‘outsider’. What would anti-doping look like in your view, if you could design it from scratch?
RAS: It might surprise your readers, but I actually support the current structure of WADA in its current form of 50/50% “ownership”/membership between Governments and Olympic Sport coupled with the UNESCO International Convention Against Doping in Sport. Think of this as a kind of United Nations/Major Sport collaboration. This vehicle is somewhat cumbersome but is necessary in order to allow global buy-in across nation states and sport.
In my opinion, we have to be realistic about power-sharing between Governments and Sport and the limitations of this collaboration. What we can expect is that WADA will slowly move towards sending “non-compliance” letters to National Anti-Doping Organisations, National Federations and/or International Federations. These are the entities that are governed by the WADA Code and WADA’s major purpose is to be the keeper of the CODE.
The cumbersome/pedantic way in which the world political system operates will not allow for dreams that don’t encompass the global realities of sovereignty and corporate power.
WADA is not the boss of anyone, and cannot sanction Governments and/or the IOC (in essence it cannot sanction its owners). And given the power structure and delicate balance that currently exists we need to be clear re the limitations of what WADA can/cannot do. I cannot envision replacing this but we have to be realistic about just throwing more $$ at WADA per se.
Athletes at the elite level are governed by their International Federations and at the lower tiers of competition the National Anti-Doping Organisations are responsible for testing/educations athletes. Given this reality I have called for the establishment of an independent agency which will be responsible not just for testing IAAF elite athletes but to do this for ALL international federations. In this regard I think it would be reasonable to get the IOC to take a small percentage of its current global TV rights deal (3% to 5%) to fund this independent agency. The agency would develop and conduct testing and investigations globally without reference/interference from all the International Federations. This would take this function out of the hands of sport – a third party type arrangement which can stand scrutiny and probity.
WADA would still retain oversight of the activities of the proposed international agency and the international federations would have access to management reports/information. Governments would continue to fund their national anti-doping organizations. In this way a major step can be made towards developing a more robust global anti-doping system.
Illuminating the dangers for change
RT: Do you ever feel that the fight isn’t worth it, or do you hold out hope for real change?
RAS: Do I ever feel that the fight against doping in sport isn’t worth it? Never! That is not to say that I don’t get frustrated and feel helpless and tell myself to move on with my life. But as soon as those thoughts surface I quickly dismiss them. The problem is real but not unsolvable. What is missing is the collective will to make a difference. I, for example, would like to spend the next part of my life working with others to shine the light on corrupt practices and doping in sport and to provide a beacon of hope for clean athletes who want to compete without cheating.
The problem I have found is that whistleblowers like me are not welcomed/wanted in the system. It has been tough to continue to speak out. I wish I was in a position to actually effect change as I believe that as the public gets a clearer understand of the extent of the problem then more voices will be heard. That is my hope.
As more persons speak out then sport and governments will have no option but to make room for change. But do not expect them to do this by themselves. We (the public) are the ultimate change agents.
So I go forward each day hoping that I am not whistling in the dark but rather helping to illuminate the dangers that are present and lie ahead.