PtG Article 26.11.2017

Is WADA fit for purpose?

The formation of the World Anti Doping Agency in 1999 was hailed as a breakthrough in the global fight against drugs in sport. However, despite nations and sporting bodies agreeing to strict testing and compliance standards, the drug scandals have not gone away. Play the Game 2017 asked if WADA is fit for the future or whether it needs deep-seated reform.

In the first keynote speech at Play the Game 2017, Craig Reedie, WADA President since 2014, noted his organisation’s many achievements since 1999. These, he said, include the creation of the World Anti-Doping Code and subsequent revisions, a progressive sanctions regime, scientific research, the accreditation of drug testing laboratories, and the introduction of biological passports for athletes.

However, he admitted it faced a “firestorm” following a series of revelations on widespread state-sponsored doping in Russian athletics, first made by German TV station ARD, that cast a shadow over the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio. A subsequent report for WADA by Canadian law professor Richard H. McLaren implicated more than 1,000 Russian athletes and at least 30 sports in ‘institutionalised manipulation’ as it is called in the report.

WADA does not have the legal and financial muscle to carry out exhaustive investigations, Reedie pointed out, meaning its requests for evidence are often denied or ignored. However, he added that swift action was taken following the Russian revelations, involving WADA issuing suspensions, ending accreditation for laboratories, and liaising with Interpol and other authorities. A series of recommendations published in November 2016 included strengthening WADA’s ability to investigate. WADA, Reedie said, is shifting its focus from “rule compliance” to the delivery of effective anti-doping systems.

Reedie condemned recent comments from Leonid Tyagachev, honorary president of Russia’s Olympic Committee, who recently told a Russian radio station that Grigory Rodchenkov, the whistleblower who exposed the state-sponsored doping programme, “needed to be shot for untruths, like Stalin would have done”. This comment, he said, was “outrageous” and “should not have been made”.

Reedie did not address speculations of whether or not the IOC will allow Russia to take part in the Winter Olympics on normal conditions. However, asked about the options Russia has up to the PyoengChang 2018, he said that “it would help if they would recognize the existence of the McLaren report, and secondly, give access to the Moscow laboratory which are the due conditions that have been there for last 18 months.”

WADA must end conflict of interest

Travis Tygart, Chief Executive of the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) told Play the Game 2017 delegates that significant reforms would not occur until conflicts of interest ended.

“It is essential to avoid conflicts of interests between those who promote our sport and those who police it,” he said. “To do otherwise is akin to allowing the fox into the henhouse.”

Currently, Tygart pointed out, half of WADA’s executive committee is chosen by the Olympic movement, and these members have strong incentives to promote their sport’s interests.

“To uncover the dirty side of sport is in clear conflict with these interests,” he said, “the Olympic flame is burning “a little less bright today”.

The road to reform, Tygart said, should start with more autonomy for individual athletes, and the Russian scandal had already prompted some athletes to form organisations independent of their governing bodies.  

Athletes feel frustrated

This was echoed by vice-chair of the German anti-doping agency, Silke Kassner, who told Play the Game 2017 that athletes felt powerless and frustrated by the failures of such bodies, and had “lost confidence in the international sports system”.

Kessner is also Managing Director of the newly-formed institution, Athletes Germany, wants “no decision to be taken without the participation of the athlete,” she explained.

Former WADA President Richard Pound said that full independence for WADA, with no attachment to the governing bodies of sport, would imply a “serious admission of failure”.

WADA, he pointed out, has been chronically underfunded throughout its existence and before to 2015 had no power to conduct independent investigations. WADA’s structure, he added, was designed in such way that no organisation can control it.

"The systems and the science are pretty robust," he said. "The problem is that there are a whole lot of people out there who don’t want it to work."

In more than 40 sessions, over 200 speakers will present their thoughts and opinions on a wide range of the most topical questions in world sport during the tenth Play the Game conference, taking place in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, 26-30 November 2017.Read more about Play the Game 2017