By Ben Nichols
In an often bewilderingly bureaucratic industry for one that, on the surface at least, should stand to be modern, progressive and forward-thinking, the Olympic sports world is often bereft of catchy soundbites that people instantly get, that stick with people.
USADA CEO Travis Tygart (U.S. Senate TV)
And so, in the last half-decade of tumultuous anti-doping sagas, stepping in to fill that void is Travis Tygart, the head of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency and perhaps the most respected anti-doping leader of modern times.
As used by Tygart, the ‘the fox is in the henhouse’ analogy was referring to the widely believed conflict of interest that exists when sports leaders (AKA sports promoters) sit on the board of anti-doping authorities (the sports police).
This argument has gained steam: how can sports promoters simultaneously be wholeheartedly committed to uprooting doping and all the negative reputation that, initially, entails.
The sports world witnessed this with the Russia scandal when the IOC ducked and dived to avoid taking the firm decision athletes wanted - while others, such as the International Paralympic Committee and IAAF, delivered.
And yet, with that saga in the rearview mirror, the fox guarding the henhouse is proving to be a more prescient analogy than ever before.
Just look at the successful emergence of the sports integrity unit in recent years. This model, which at its heart kicks into touch the notion that the fox (sports promoters) should guard the henhouse (sports police unit), has quietly but steadily shown it is worth its salt.
Way back in 2011 David Howman, the long-time WADA director general, began proposing the idea of a global sports integrity body.
David Howman at his final WADA board meeting in May 2016 (ATR)
A WADA-style half-sport, half-government structure was what the New Zealander argued would work. He stressed that the type of activities we would witness in anti-doping were also patterns that could be spotted in other areas threatening sport -- everything from illegal betting to bribery, and trafficking in steroids to match fixing. It was at that time that Howman argued that WADA could operate as one arm of such a model.
Howman and others have argued that an all-in-one sports integrity body would allow authorities to pool resources and use the learnings of anti-doping organizations as a model to follow.
It doesn't matter if you're tackling doping, match fixing, illegal betting or corruption: the work you are putting your mind to is about protecting the values of sport and sending a message of what sport stands for.
There is a small irony - though no surprise to those of us who have followed athletics from the Pound Report to present day - that it is the Howman-led Athletics Integrity Unit (AIU) that is proving to be the pioneering, pace-setting force for the sports integrity model.
Under the findings of the Pound Report in 2015, the then-IAAF (now World Athletics) was proven to be a case of fox guarding henhouse extraordinaire.
When I led communications for the AIU in 2017 surrounding the IAAF World Championships in London, it was an open discussion that this new-style unit might become a benchmark for other sports to follow.
Fast forward to February 2021. Whilst I don’t want to prematurely suggest “job done”, because complacency never did anyone any favors - the AIU is turning heads of other sports.
Last week’s announcement highlighted the 15-month-long AIU investigation into a plot orchestrated by the former leaders of the Russian athletics federation, which led to helping high jumper Danil Lysenko explain away three whereabouts failures.
What was notable about the recent announcement was the extent to which the AIU was commended for its modern, progressive, digitally-led investigative techniques.
Here was a sports integrity unit overseeing doping of a sport which only five years previous was having its reputation shredded because of a corruption and doping scandal.
Why the turnaround?
Put simply, it’s down to the fact that the arm’s length, independent-of-the-governing-body approach to running a sport’s “illnesses” works.
With the umbilical cord cut from World Athletics, the AIU is able to conduct its work diligently, independently and without the inevitable pressure.
Ben Nichols (Nichols)
Here is the biggest irony of all: unearthing doping and other “problem child” issues that arise in modern-day sport need not be seen as negative news to be hidden.
Rather, unearthing corruption, doping and other integrity issues should be an opportunity to enter the modern age minus the shackles of the old guard.
Athletics is not alone. Badminton, field hockey, equestrian, tennis and now biathlon have also trodden a similar path. Cycling, in contrast to the general direction of traffic, has opted to turn its back on the independent, successful Cycling Anti-Doping Foundation to take back control of its anti-doping program.
The biggest question of all might be: which sport next?
About Ben Nichols
Ben is a leading Communications Consultant working in international sport, specializing in anti-doping and sports integrity. He is currently working with Ursula Papandrea's campaign for the presidency of the International Weightlifting Federation. He is the former head of Media Relations for WADA; former Director of Communications for the Commonwealth Games Federation, and former Director of Communications for the AIU. He is also the founder and host of new podcast series, Athletes: The Other Side, in which he interviews athletes about their professional stories and successes away from the sporting field.
For general comments or questions, click here.
Your best source of news about the Olympics is AroundTheRings.com, for subscribers only.