WADA, Russian doping, ‘realpolitik’ and the ignored voice of athletes

14 Jan 2019 Posted by

So here’s a funny little anecdote to kick off today’s Short Thought on Sport. Last year in November, I was in London for the World Rugby Annual Medical and Scientific Conference. We stay at a place called The Lensbury in Teddington, and they have, as far as “hotel” gyms go, a pretty reasonable one. Couple of Watt bikes that might be familiar to me from my times staying there.

So I’m on the bike, a Saturday morning, and alongside is a lean looking guy, doing some pretty high octane short intervals. I grind through my not-so-high-octane hour, and as I hop off, he says “You’re Ross Tucker aren’t you?”.

So we strike up a conversation – he’s Tom Fordyce, Chief Sports Writer for the BBC. Turns out he’d done his calf running and the bike was rehab (quite a handy runner, Tom – hope the calf is sorted).

We got to talking about WADA, I think because it was in the news at the time because of their reinstatement of Russia and the allegations around Beckie Scott and Ed Moses feeling bullied and silenced by certain people within the IOC and WADA.

Meanwhile, the bike I had vacated was now occupied by a very strong looking fellow who also happened to be wearing the national shirt of one of the Great Britain Olympic teams (I’ll leave the sport out of it for now). The guy was listening to Tom and I, because at the point in our conversation where we were basically saying “WADA have really lost control of the situation, there cannot be any confidence at all in their handling of it now (that may have been me saying that, to be clear!), he interrupted us:

Excuse me, I just want to say that you really shouldn’t believe everything you hear in the media

Tom said “I am the media”.

I thought that was pretty funny.

The guy was undeterred. He then said “I happen to be very good friends with Craig Reedie (that’s the current president of WADA, and the man who many accuse of mismanaging or failing to lead through the Russia crises because of conflicts of interest), and I know what he is doing, and it’s the only way to get Russia to the table”.

He then explained why Reedie was masterfully in control of the situation, that the outside world (presumably many of the athletes he works with and for, I guess) doesn’t have the faintest clue about the long-term strategy being employed by Reedie, and that WADA have the situation very much in hand.

This was November 2018. As you may know, last week, Russia missed the deadline (to provide data, among other things) that had been set by WADA as part of its conditional reinstatement of Russia, and so that ‘long-game’ he tried to explain to us doesn’t look, at least so far, like it’s working out as planned.

Reedie, for his part, had said last year that it was “inconceivable” and “very hard to believe” that Russia would miss the WADA deadline. The rest of the world seemed to find it inconceivable and hard to believe that they’d actually comply, and January 2019 vindicated the latter group. Reedie is now “bitterly disappointed”, which is the start point from which the latest discussions begin, today, as the WADA Compliance Review Committee meet to discuss how to proceed.


Reedie as Kissinger, and WADA in ‘realpolitik’

Basically, according to our Watt-bike companion, the situation is too complex for us plebs to appreciate. There is a grand scheme of supersmart strategy in play, where Reedie, like a Henry Kissinger, Nixon, or Gorbachev figure, is going to pull strings, sometimes in shadow, sometimes in the light, and bring this messy situation to a resolution in a pragmatic way. The word “Realpolitik” was actually used in the Lensbury gymnasium to explain the current situation.

Now that’s all good and well, and as you may know, I do appreciate a bit of grey and nuance. I totally appreciate that the solution to problems is not always going to be found in instant reaction, in immediate black and white thinking. That sometimes one does have to set aside strict ethical ideologies or premises in order to get “something” done. Where disagreement exists is that athletes don’t seem to care for the same “something” that WADA do.

And so the problem that arises is that the athletes don’t want a slower, compromised solution to the problem. And who does WADA serve? The athletes, surely? But instead of actually doing its job, or his job, as the custodian of the organization in charge of preventing doping for the benefit of athletes, Reedie has led WADA into shadow, grey and compromise ina Machiavellian approach to a situation that is, at least on the microscopic anti-doping level that athletes are familiar with and subjected to, pretty straight forward.

Think of it from the athlete’s point of view. Anti-doping is ‘simple’. It’s clear-cut. There’s a list of banned substances and methods, and if you get caught, then you get sanctioned.

At least, that’s how it works in theory. In reality, we know that it doesn’t work all that well, and problems ranging from false positives (non-deliberately cheating athletes failing tests, like the 90-year cyclist who was done for anabolics last week) to false negatives (dirty athletes passing tests, like a good many others) mean that when you stress the anti-doping system, it breaks (think Froome’s legal might thrown at salbutamol, meldonium, methylhexanamine contamination etc). Being caught doesn’t mean a ban, and being ‘clean’ does not mean clean. Fine. Most people will appreciate that anti-doping is not perfectly fit for purpose. Quite how unfit it is might be a point of disagreement, but that’s for another time.

Point is, when the evidence is irrefutable (as it was for Russia, or would be for an athlete so completely exposed as doping for generations), athletes understand the direct cause-effect reassurance that anti-doping is meant to provide. They also know, and have fair expectation, that exceptions are made only for very good reason, that leniency is given only when that doper becomes part of the solution moving forward.

And so when Reedie engages in “realpolitik”, and when WADA appears to be moving the goal posts to find a back-door return sport without adequately sanctioning the offender, then they violate the simplicity, and thus the trustworthiness of the whole system.


A tangled web that screams conflict

Now, the WADA approach may well be pragmatic, and it may well be the only legally tenable one to take. That’s what the head of the Compliance Committee has tried to argue many times in response to criticism. Most recently, he responded not once, but twice, to two letters that were submitted criticizing the process by Sebastian Samuelsson, a Swedish biathlete.

You can read Samuelsson’s letters here and here, and Jonathan Taylor’s responses here and here. As it transpires, the WADA team are now getting access to some data, and so presumably those at WADA who are engaged in some string pulling feel vindicated. The athletes, for reasons explained above, are not.

The thing is, and I’d have wondered if Taylor considers this as he composes his rather eloquent and apparently logical replies, when the situation is so murky and complex that you constantly find yourself correcting the facts and trying to explain over and over the process you are following, then maybe you should accept that you’ve lost control of the message altogether? You try to follow this fuller explanation of the whole thing – it’ll make your head explode trying to keep up with who was meant to do what, why it hasn’t been done, is being excused, isn’t being excused, and who is next meant to do what?

And what is anti-doping if not a system designed to inspire trust? Trust by who? The athletes. There we are again, circling back to the athletes, who voices on this issue have been the most critical, yet who seem to be the least acknowledged.

One acid-test question worth asking at this point is that if WADA were to come out now and say that they have “resolved the Russia issue, and all requirements are being met, WADA is satisfied with the data provided and will thus proceed with the permanent re-instatement of Russia”, who among us would actually believe this to be true?

Or would we say “Ah, as expected, some backroom deal has been struck, and the politicians will now manage the situation until it disappears from memory”? (Note: After I published this article, it emerged that WADA have begun copying data from the Moscow lab, so this question is more timeous than hypothetical)

WADA and Reedie have positioned themselves in the middle of an incredibly complex, and thus potentially compromised and conflicted world consisting of the IOC, National Olympic Committees and even the Russian government, right up to the level of Putin. It’s a web from which the only escape is ‘realpolitik’, and that’s why when you read Taylor’s responses in those letters, they seem eminently reasonable and best practice in isolation. But when you try to interpret them as part of the last two years worth of scandal, denial, accusation etc, they just look like more obfuscation.

At least, this is true from the perspective of the athletes, whose position is different to that of the the politicians. They want the anti-doping enforcement of state sponsored doping to be as harsh, as clean, as swift, as it would be if an athlete was found to cover doping up on a wide scale, be exposed, and then refuse to co-operate and acknowledge wrongdoing.

So while realpolitik can set aside certain ethical absolutes in some situations, it doesn’t really fit all that well into an anti-doping world which has ‘zero tolerance’ at its heart. Then again, this is not the only area which which that fundamental (and admittedly naive) principle has been exposed in the last three or four years. At the very least, strong ethical leadership may have helped offset the failures of policy, science and anti-doping implementation. Whether real or ‘realpolitik’, that has been conspicuously absent.


Last bit of recommended reading for you, if interested:

Marina Hyde has written to typically genius, biting pieces on this. You can read them here and here. This bit especially made me laugh:

Do NOT follow this link or you will be banned from the site!
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