As birthday parties go, it was a bit of an unusual celebration.
Yes, there was cake. But as the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) marked its 20th anniversary at a conference in Poland last week, there were also warnings that the coming days will be critical to the future of the international body meant to safeguard clean sport for the world’s athletes.
Born out of a doping scandal in cycling two decades ago, the Montreal-based agency is teetering, some believe, over the handling of another crisis that continues to rock the sporting world today: the Russia doping scandal.
A key decision on Russia’s status with the agency could come as early as Sunday. And according to some prominent figures in the anti-doping community, how the matter is handled could affect the very credibility of WADA.
“WADA is on life-support like never before,” said Travis Tygart, CEO of the United States Anti-Doping Agency.
Tygart and others are worried about how WADA will deal with allegations that a massive database of test results obtained from a now-sealed Moscow laboratory was manipulated before being delivered to the global body.
In September, WADA said it was investigating after finding that data didn’t match a leak it had received from a whistleblower.
This weekend, WADA’s compliance review committee (CRC) will examine expert analysis of the database to determine the extent of any tampering and weigh potential sanctions against Russia.
If the inconsistencies are verified, Russia could be found non-compliant by WADA’s executive committee and be potentially banned from participating in the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.
RUSADA head suspects database was altered
Russia itself can’t seem to get its story straight about the database.
Russian Sports Minister Pavel Kolobkov appeared briefly at WADA’s three-day World Conference on Doping in Sport in Katowice, Poland, flying quickly back to Moscow, where he told reporters, “There were no deletions or manipulations.”
But the current head of Russia’s anti-doping agency, RUSADA, says he believes there were thousands of alterations to the database.
“I not only believe, because I saw: I received the same [packet] of documents Mr. Kolobkov received. I was shocked,” Yuriy Ganus said in an interview with CBC.
RUSADA, he says, was not responsible.
Ganus blames what he calls “shadow forces” for manipulating the data, in part, he says, to “protect history,” including Russian athletes who may have already finished their sporting careers.
He says WADA’s sanctions could go even further than Tokyo, preventing Russian athletes from competing at any international sporting events for the next three to four years, including the World Cup. Russia could also be prohibited from hosting international competitions.
‘It could be the end of WADA’
Even before the recent questions around Russia’s doping database, the country’s record was tarnished because of revelations by whistleblowers and WADA’s own independent investigations that pointed to state-sponsored cheating as far back as the 2011 track and field World Championships in Moscow and the the 2012 London Olympics.
In 2015, WADA suspended Russia’s anti-doping agency, and the following year, the country faced a patchwork of sanctions at the Rio Olympics and Paralympics. It was also technically banned at the 2018 Pyeongchang Games, where 169 Russian athletes who had proven they were clean competed under the special designation “Olympic Athletes from Russia.” The world track and field governing body maintains a ban on Russia’s athletes.
Russia’s WADA membership was restored in September 2018 on condition that authorities turn over that key doping database from the Moscow lab — a move that was met with controversy over whether WADA was being too easy on the country, as it hadn’t yet completed all its obligations on the road map to reinstatement.
So, the findings of WADA’s compliance review committee — and how its executive committee deals with those recommendations — will be closely scrutinized.
“I think in a lot of ways, it could be the end of WADA,” said Tygart. “If the CRC recommends it go to non-compliance with consequences, and WADA’s executive committee … if they say, ‘No, we disagree with you,’ I think that WADA is on the brink.”
WADA’s approach to the Russian doping scandal has created schisms within the anti-doping movement before, particularly between defenders of the status quo and those who see the International Olympic Committee (IOC) as having too much influence on and within WADA.
Twenty years ago, it may have been practical and economical to create an international anti-doping body made up of IOC and government members. (The IOC provides 50 per cent of WADA’s annual budget.)
But critics worry about a lack of independence and conflicts of interest at the top decision-making level, not to mention an absence of full voting rights for athlete representatives.
WADA’s powerful executive committee — equally made up of members from the Olympic movement and governments — is the ultimate voting authority.
Canada’s Beckie Scott says faith in WADA shaken
When RUSADA’s membership was reinstated in 2018, one of its vice-presidents, Norway’s Linda Helleland, questioned the credibility of the organization saying, “Today we failed the clean athletes of the world.”
Canada’s own Beckie Scott resigned her position on the compliance review committee in protest.
“There was really no proper, significant consequence for what was exposed in the end,” she said in an interview with CBC News at last week’s WADA meeting.
Scott is legendary in her sport of cross-country skiing, having belatedly been awarded a gold medal from a race at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics. Two skiers who crossed the finish line ahead of Scott were later disqualified after being found to have doped.
Over the years, she has widely been viewed as a champion for athletes’ rights and their voice at the table, both as an IOC member and at WADA. But it’s a seat that comes with little actual power.
Scott was in Poland last week for the World Conference. It was her “swan song,” as she called it — the last large gathering of anti-doping stakeholders she’ll attend in an official capacity.
After she resigned from the CRC, she remained chair of WADA’s athlete committee, a term that is now coming to an end. As a chair of that working group, she is allowed a place at executive committee meetings but does not get a vote when key decisions are made.
“The fact that there is no athlete representation on an equal level with voting privileges is incredible,” Scott said, underscoring the contradiction that presents with WADA’s core mission.
“That’s not an indicator of an organization that’s really progressive and interested in furthering the rights and strengthening of athletes within their organization. Not at all.”
Back when Scott received her Olympic gold medal, WADA was still in its infancy, and she had a lot of faith in WADA. But after everything that’s transpired, “that faith has been shaken,” Scott said.
She is not alone.
‘The walls may have to crumble’
Rob Koehler knows WADA from the inside. He worked out of its Montreal offices for almost 18 years, including on the Russia file. He left in August 2018 to help found an athlete-driven group known as Global Athlete.
“WADA’s credibility with athletes right now is at an all-time low,” he said.
Some of it has to do with the issue of athlete representation.
“We believe that it should be a one-third, one-third, one-third — governments, sport and athletes — to be represented,” said Koehler.
And some of it has to do with the seemingly ever-present Russia question.
Koehler said he agrees with Tygart’s suggestion that a wrong move now by WADA could spell disaster for the anti-doping agency.
“Athletes were very vocal when WADA decided to let Russia back without fulfilling the road map. Very vocal. And they continue to be frustrated seeing how this has been dealt with,” he said.
“If you’re not going to be tough, the walls may have to crumble to have a rebuild, a fresh start. To have an independent organization that’s truly independent, free of influence from the IOC and from government.”
One of WADA’s fiercest defenders is its director general, Olivier Niggli, who not only doubled down on the 2018 decision to reinstate RUSADA but told CBC it should have been done sooner — no matter where things stand now.
“It may not have been popular,” Niggli said. “We’re not always popular, as you know. But I think at the end of the day, to move things forward, that was the best thing.”
Niggli says the process of rehabilitating RUSADA has been sped up as a result of that decision, and information from the database — flawed or not — has at least materialized.
Independence of WADA executive intact: Pound
The fact that 20 years on from its inception, WADA is dealing with a crisis that is showing no sign of letting up is “disappointing,” says Canada’s Richard Pound.
Pound has worn many hats over the years, including at the IOC and WADA, the organization he founded and was president of from 1999 to 2007.
If anyone should be blamed for the Russia scandal dragging on, Pound says, it’s the International Olympic Committee.
“The IOC fumbled the ball, in my view, in 2016.”
He’s referring to an IOC decision before the Rio Summer Games to reject WADA’s recommendation to ban Russia outright, instead deciding to leave it up to each individual sport federation to rule on participation.
“They should have been put out,” he said. “I don’t know whether the IOC thought Russia is too important to be left out of something like the Olympics. I think it’s a 180 from that: the Olympics are too important for Russia.”
While Pound doesn’t worry much about the independence of WADA’s executive committee when it comes to making a fresh call on Russia, he knows which way he thinks the decision should fall.
“If there’s a recommendation [of non-compliance], it’s either a very brave or very foolhardy executive that would not follow it,” he said.
WADA is at a crucial juncture.
As dissenters such as Beckie Scott are moving on, so, too, is the agency’s president, Craig Reedie, who has faced criticism for not being tougher on Russia and, like Pound, holds positions at both IOC and WADA.
His successor is 35-year-old Witold Banka, Poland’s minister for sport and tourism, who assumes the post on Jan. 1, 2020.
Olympic officials like to point out that Banka is a former competitive 400-metre sprinter. But as a representative from the government side, Banka is not widely considered to be a true independent voice for athletes at the executive committee voting table.
Critical vote could come Dec. 9
The jury is still out on where and how Banka will lead WADA. He says he does accept that the agency has a “big crisis” on its hands, but for the moment, is awaiting the CRC’s recommendations.
“If we will discover and confirm manipulations, the reaction should be tough,” he said. “For me, it’s obvious … There is no compromise with manipulations, and I will never tolerate it.”
Banka, Reedie and 10 others on the executive committee will ultimately review the recommendation and vote on how to proceed. That vote is tentatively scheduled for Dec. 9.
As chair of the athlete committee, Beckie Scott will be sitting at that table, where she may get a say but won’t get a vote.
“I’m not naïve,” said Scott. “I know politics are everywhere and politics in sport is rife. But I would just remind everybody that this particular organization and this particular cause should only have one side, and it should be the good side … the side that has integrity and principals and fairness at its heart.”
Twenty years after WADA was born with the best of intentions, some still feel the reminder is necessary.