Strengthening clean sport and athlete welfare through partnerships, building resilience to crises: DFSNZ holds first anti-doping conference

Monday - December 02nd 2019

Drug Free Sport NZ (DFSNZ) held its first anti-doping conference for national sports organisations (NSOs) last month, in Auckland, with the theme of “Welfare of Athletes and NSOs: what does it mean in anti-doping”. Former Olympic cyclist and DFSNZ Board member Sarah Ulmer ONZM opened the conference with a powerful and personal account of her experience in cycling: “I raced against drug cheats, against former drug cheats, against people that were cheating at the time. I finished out of the medals behind drug cheats, and then had my own performance questioned when I won. When clean athletes’ performances are viewed with cynicism, this is a real and tragic casualty of those who choose to cheat”. Sarah spoke about DFSNZ’s increased emphasis on putting clean athletes at the centre of their work, investing more resources in education to support athletes, helping them to compete clean and listening to their perspectives. 

The Minister for Sport and Recreation Grant Robertson spoke of the important contribution of sport, play and active recreation to our national well-being, and how sport helps to role model the values of hard work, teamwork and fairness. He touched on the international doping scandals and described his role in advocating for clean sport as “being able to look elite athletes in the eye, and say that they are competing on a level playing field”. Grant Robertson also referred to ongoing conversations with WADA around flexibility and discretion, noting its importance to domestic sport.

Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority Chief Executive Officer David Sharpe talked about crisis management and resilience, giving a unique insight into events in the Australian AFL and NRL which challenged ASADA as an organisation and saw two teams taken out of sport as a result of their supplement programmes. “Everyone thinks that it (a doping crisis) won't happen to me, or to my sport. Until it does.” The solution, he says, is to work together: “It’s about partnership. Sports organisations, athletes, government and anti-doping needs to work as one.“

David Sharpe spoke about cyber security threats to sports anti-doping agencies who hold confidential data, and noted a spike in (unsuccessful) hacking efforts at ASADA after he spoke out against Russian doping.

The Honourable Clayton Cosgrove moderated a panel of representatives from national sports organisations comprising rugby league, badminton, athletics and weightlifting. The challenges for NSOs ranged from navigating the different anti-doping requirements of international federations, ensuring geographically dispersed athletes receive anti-doping education, to being asked to manage an ever-increasing range of complex integrity issues, often within very tightly-resourced sports governance frameworks. NZRL General Manager of Football and Well-being Nigel Vagana spoke of the work of the NRL integrity unit and accompanying well-being support across Rugby League: “Our key mandate is that people leave our game better.  We’ve got everyone – from the silver spoons, to the invisible spoons. We have to cater for and support everyone, it’s the Kiwi way. We’re trying to help people go back into their community a better person through their experience with us.”

Sport NZ’s senior policy advisor Simon Dunkerley gave an overview of their Sports Integrity review, and Australian former Olympic rower Kim Brennan spoke on ethics and performance culture: “It’s about how to balance the tension in sport between that quest to win, with the desire to win right, win fair and win well.”

An athlete panel moderated by Ben Sandford, the newly-elected chair of the WADA Athletes’ Commission, was a great opportunity to listen to the perspectives of the people who are most affected by any decisions made in anti-doping.  Hockey player Brooke Neal, former weightlifter Tracy Lambrechs and former Olympic sailor Jo Aleh shared personal stories, and expressed a desire for others involved in doping scandals to be held accountable for their role, such as coaches and doctors. They stressed the role of athlete education in helping sports people to protect themselves from inadvertent doping – such as through a contaminated supplement. “When you’re a young athlete you’re just so scared of the doping control process because it’s unfamiliar– it’s only once you’re more experienced that you know who to reach out to for good information” said Brooke Neal.

The third international speaker, Tammy Hanson, Elite Education Manager for the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), was joined by DFSNZ’s Education Manager, Sian Clancy to speak on education. Hanson highlighted the win-at-all cost mentality that can lead to doping by athletes and athlete support personnel, how international collaboration can enhance effective clean sport education, and the risk of dietary supplements for athletes. “We know that athletes feel an immense amount of pressure to win and that many positive tests can be traced back to prohibited substances found in supplements,” said Hanson. “We encourage a food-first approach to athlete nutrition, but athletes often believe that they need supplements to be successful. By helping athletes understand the health and anti-doping risks of dietary supplements, we can help reduce their reliance on these risky products.” Hanson also cited a USADA study in which coaches were identified as the number one influence on athletes, followed by teammates, and then parents, making it critical for USADA to reach more than just the athlete with their education programmes.

In the final session of the day, DFSNZ Chief Executive, Nick Paterson, introduced DFSNZ’s new strategy which is centred around closer engagement with athletes and NSOs, and focussed on supporting ethical kiwi sportspeople under the banner of clean athletes: clean sport.  He closed the conference by recommending all national sports organisations consider doing DFSNZ’s Level One e-Learning: “If you do that, you’ll be in a great position to support your athletes and help your sport.”

DFSNZ gratefully acknowledges the support of EY NZ for hosting the conference, especially EY NZ Chair Braden Dickson, director Anthony Ruakere, and EY employees and Olympians Jo Aleh and Kim Brennan (Australia).