New athletics doping report piles more pressure on IAAF – but there mustn’t be an over-reaction

WADA chief Dick Pound speaks to journalists at the launch of the latest anti-doping report. REUTERS/Michael Dalder

The release of a second World Anti Doping Authority (WADA) report into doping in athletics has proved to be as astounding as the outcomes of the first report in November 2015. It offers allegations of extortion at what were the highest levels of the sport. But the report appears to leave the way clear for reform efforts to be led by the current president of the sport’s governing body, Sebastian Coe.

This story first broke in the summer of 2015 when the Sunday Times and German broadcaster ADR released documents showing that hundreds of athletes had abnormal blood profiles which suggested systematic doping. WADA’s investigation, led by its former president Dick Pound, claimed that there had been “corruption and bribery practices at the highest levels” of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) to cover up doping cases. Russia received an indefinite ban from competition.

Since then, major figures have been identified and face punishment, including former IAAF President Lamine Diack, former head of anti-doping for the IAAF, Gabriel Dolle, and Diack’s son Papa Massata Diack. Russian scientists and anti-doping leaders have been sanctioned. We have also learned from an IAAF Ethics Committee report that athletes from other countries might be involved, including Kenya and Turkey, and that people who had been in IAAF leadership roles apparently knew about doping allegations several years ago.

IAAF accused

This second report was delayed pending police investigations and was released on January 14 at a press conference in Munich. It makes claims of IAAF staff involved in extortion and the covering-up of positive tests. The focus remained on Russia and examined why the athletics governing body was so slow to respond to evidence of widespread doping.

Seb Coe awaits the latest WADA press conference. REUTERS/Michael Dalder

Sebastian Coe’s position was endorsed by Pound – indeed he said he could not think of anyone better to lead the IAAF at what is a key moment for it. But the report says the IAAF Council, which included Coe at the time “could not have been unaware of the extent of doping in athletics”. Coe had been vice-president of the IAAF under Diack. Pound appeared to focus his criticism of the council on a failure to address alleged nepotism.

Most frustrating is that the remit of this report was limited to Russia. Suggestions that those cases were just the tip of iceberg of doping and extortion leaves open the possibility that the situation is a whole lot worse.

Pound accused the IAAF of “continued denial” and requiring an overhaul of governance processes to address previous failures. But it is hard to see how such high-level interventions might change behaviour among athletes, coaches and doctors in the short-term.

Armstrong legacy

Athletics seems to be in a similar position to cycling three years ago. Long-standing rumours of doping cultures within elite teams were not finally confronted by that sport’s governing body the UCI until the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) published a detailed report in 2012 that looked into the US Postal team based upon detailed interviews. Their objective was to sanction Lance Armstrong and to break through the “omerta” to work towards clean sport.

Armstrong before the fall. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard

The step-by-step process of USADA’s investigation also exposed weaknesses in the system and influence of anti-doping agencies. Many of the confessions were only obtained when federal prosecutors threatened them with prison sentences for perjury or withholding evidence, and even then with the promise of a reduced sanction (Armstrong’s team-mates received six-month bans while he received a lifetime ban).

The Russia case is in some ways similar. It was only because two whistle-blowers worked with media organisations that the suspicions began to be confirmed. The courageous husband and wife are now in hiding. Even after the revelations were published in the Sunday Times, Coe responded with an attack on the reporters.

All of which suggests that the current approach of testing athletes is not enough to prevent many from doping, either through their own volition or with the support of coaches, doctors and scientists. It would seem that the threat of a four-year ban is not a sufficient deterrent. A governance model that requires organisations within each country and sport to act in accordance with the World Anti-Doping Code is also flawed, if those organisations help support doping. There are simply too many vested interests at play here.

Biting the bullet

The future for athletics looks very challenging. Much like cycling, their leaders need to be prepared to sanction the very best competitors even if that risks more scandal and high-profile withdrawals from major events. The level of corruption among administrators will be harder to tackle, not least because finding evidence and processing legal cases takes time and effort. However, a change of culture means confronting the problem, not pretending it is historical or limited to a handful of countries.

In light of these scandals, some have called for new and tougher tactics such as criminalising doping or deleting all historical event records and starting again. There is a risk of over-reacting when such situations seem so extreme that the force of law seems like the only solution.

Since WADA was formed in 1999, many academics have warned about the potential abuse of power in the anti-doping environment. Certainly when there are cases of accidental doping that lead to bans of two or four years many question the validity of the outcomes. The recent controversy over the case of Australian rules football team Essendon, where 34 past and present players were banned for 2 years for using a supplement provided by the team in 2012 shows the dilemmas and legal challenges faced in some cases. The rights of the individual athlete should always be at the forefront, and some common sense applied when there is no intention to cheat or genuine misunderstandings occurred.

The reality of the situation now is that many “real dopers” are still getting away with it, while many relatively innocuous cases are being harshly treated. The reaction to this new report ought to be tinged with caution. An over-reaction and toughening up of policy might undermine the very principles of fairness and protecting the health and well-being of athletes that the anti-doping campaigners are so keen to protect.

Found this article useful? A tax-deductible gift of $30/month helps deliver knowledge-based, ethical journalism.