When athletes have views on anti-doping, maybe we should listen

Wednesday - December 05th 2018

Sports teaches us about values - perseverance, teamwork, loyalty, and pushing the physical and mental limits of human achievement.  Athletes entertain and inspire us, and we live vicariously through the players we watch.  As sports fans, we feel invested in our athlete or team, and we don’t want to watch cheats win.  Yet a strange situation has unfolded in anti-doping, where it feels like the cheats have been accommodated.  International sports administrators are suddenly very uncomfortable hearing about it from the athletes that they are supposed to protect, even looking for ways to marginalise the athlete’s contribution.  Surely it’s our job to respect athletes?  Respect means listening when they speak, and doing our very best to ensure they can compete on a level playing field.

And yet it’s not happening.

After the Russian doping scandal, WADA’s Executive Committee made a controversial decision to reinstate the Russian anti-doping agency as a fully compliant national anti-doping organisation. This produced a lot of subsequent discussion and debate.  The stories of athletes who had missed out on medals because of doping were powerful and compelling, and a great reminder of why we need to keep athletes at the centre of anti-doping work.   

There can be many barriers to athletes speaking out - such as fear of jeopardising selection, sports funding and sponsorship opportunities.  Which makes it even more remarkable that after the Russian doping scandal we have seen athletes around the world speak up and speak loudly, in private, in meetings, in correspondence and in the media.

We’ve had constructive and proactive input from Ali Jiwad and Callum Skinner from the UK, from Katie Uhlaender and Emma Coburn from the US, Seun Adigun and Akwasi Frimpong from Nigeria, Matthew Glaetzer from Australia, Dame Valerie Adams here in New Zealand and many more. 

But are they being heard? Is anyone listening?

WADA, to its credit, created a truly independent Athlete’s Committee in 2005 and its Terms of Reference are largely unchanged since then.  The 2018 version on its website shows the purpose of the Athlete’s Committee as:

To represent the views and rights of clean athletes worldwide while providing insight and oversight into athletes’ roles and responsibilities, as they relate to anti-doping.

It is patently clear that this Athlete’s Committee has been created to represent views and rights of athletes.

The IOC has recently made comments about elected versus selected members on Athlete Committees.  The inference being that since many (but not all) of the IOC’s Athlete Committee are elected, they are more legitimate representatives.  But this is a distraction, conveniently arising when WADA Athlete’s Committee has started challenging accepted wisdom, and proposing alternatives.    

WADA should be backing the Athlete’s Committee and its chair, Canadian cross-country skier Beckie Scott.  Beckie has recently been described as someone with unchallengeable integrity and character, who has served WADA very well over a long period of time. Sport needs direct input from more people like her. 

For its own credibility, and for the ongoing confidence in the anti-doping system, WADA should be speaking out strongly backing Beckie. WADA’s recent governance review has fallen short of what the strongest of voices called for – an athlete seat on the Executive Committee.  Is it because the athlete’s voice isn’t important?  Or perhaps it’s simply that an additional seat would take the balance of power away from administrators, and into the hands of those who actually do work and on whom we administrators rely on for our jobs.

Athletes should feel able to raise concerns, and even provide ideas, and be encouraged to do so.  I don’t expect everyone to agree, and WADA may appropriately decide some ideas are not worth pursuing.  But they must respect them, listen to them and properly consider them.  Unfortunately, it would appear that currently those that bring contrary points of view are marginalised, discredited, undermined, and described as detractors.  Travis Tygart from USADA said it well last week:

It’s not easy for international organisations to change.  And at Drug Free Sport NZ we don’t profess to have it right either.  But we’re determined to work more closely with athletes.  We want to harness their voices and input to protect and promote clean sport and clean athletes.  We welcome transparency, encourage diversity, are actively seeking feedback and engagement.  It can only make us better and stronger, and what is there to fear in that?


Nick Paterson

Chief Executive, Drug Free Sport New Zealand.