If the doping problem plaguing sport were a syllogism, it might look something like this:
• Integrity is the fabric of sport.
• A level playing field guarantees the integrity of sport.
• The integrity of sports guarantees sponsorship.
• Sponsorship guarantees TV shares.
• TV shares bring more fans and revenues.
• More fans and revenues equate to growth.
• There’s no growth if there are no fans.
• There are no fans if they don’t trust sport.
• There’s no sport if there are no fans.
That the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) has banned Russia (with Kenya on the brink) from sending its athletics teams to the Rio 2016 Olympics is not surprising given the incredible depth of state-sponsored drug abuse among its athletes in the case of the former, and lack of compliance in the latter. Something dramatic needed to be done, but the doping problem in sport is much bigger than Russia, and this may be a good time for the entire sporting world to conduct a forensic audit and hit reset as it tackles a global scourge.
The issue of doping in sport cuts across sporting codes, national boundaries, degrees of difficulty and sponsorship pedigree. It took 11 years from the time of the Ben Johnson steroid scandal at the 1988 Seoul Olympics (easily the most dramatic in sports history) to set up the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), an organization funded by the Olympic movement, sporting bodies and various governments. The idea was to create an independent body which would provide outreach, education, testing and research on all things doping in sport across the globe.
Their mission, however, does not include enforcement, which in some ways straitjackets their status as a uniquely positioned impartial umpire. As it currently stands, positive tests are forwarded to the respective International Sporting Federations for further action per the tenets of that sporting body’s rules and regulations for sanctioning athletes.
But what happens when the sporting federation colludes with the tainted athlete to suppress a positive test in deference to commercial interest? A report by the Independent Cyclist Reform Commission cited strong evidence suggesting cycling’s governing body, the International Cycling Union (UCI), worked very closely with Lance Armstrong, his legal counsel and his doctors (as far back as 1999) to circumvent allegations of doping, thereby enabling UCI to project Armstrong as the face of their sport for nearly a decade, reaping the commercial gains associated with a popular athlete with an inspiring triumph-over-cancer backstory.
Former IAAF president Lamine Diack (Getty Images)
That same conflict of interest prevailed within the IAAF. In November 2015, IAAF President Lamine Diack admitted to taking over $1.3 million in bribes from the Russian Athletics Federation to cover up its illicit doping program and suppress the positive tests of Russian athletes. According to WADA’s independent commission investigating allegations of Russia’s state-sponsored doping program which first aired on German television in December of 2014, Diack appointed his legal adviser (who was not on retainer by the IAAF) Habib Cissé, to monitor and cover up doping cases involving Russian athletes. The report names Cissé as “a co-conspirator in the extortion of athletes to cover up, delay or eliminate disciplinary sanctions of Russian athletes.”
This begs the question: when the leadership of the sports federations, obligated to maintain balance and fairness, become key players in ensuring the success of doping programs of its premier athletes and member states, is it still a fair game? Does that same federation have the “brass” to come back and sanction the individual or team which it actively briefed on how to ensure its doping program beat the system? In such a circumstance, should sanctions, punishments or fines similarly be extended to the sporting federations, doctors, coaches and officials, in addition to the offending party?
To be clear, individual athletes are responsible for personal conduct and consumption, but the decision for “Team Athlete” to dope often occurs way above the athlete’s level or pay grade. Which brings us to Kenya. As a country, Kenya doesn’t realistically factor into the Olympics until the second week of the Games, when the program shifts to the athletics stadium and distance races longer than 400 meters. That Kenya literally takes over the endurance disciplines from that point forward is not in dispute.
So why dope? In a recent conversation with an anonymous source working within the African anti-doping community who is intimately familiar with the Kenyan crisis, the country’s noncompliance is partially based on a system of corrupt officials exploiting athletes with very little formal education who will do as they are told or risk banishment from a Kenyan system whose production of world class talent parallels water’s production of moisture. He notes that unlike most advanced nations where world class athletes come from the college and university ranks and are largely independent, that is not the case in Kenya.
A few athletics officials in that country often function as middlemen to questionable promoters who prey on poorly educated youth looking to emerge from poverty into a highly competitive and successful Kenyan athletics system. The promoters’ primary interest is maximizing marathon and meet appearance fees featuring elite Kenyan runners, prompting corrupt officials to “strongly suggest supplements” which aid in rapid recovery. Of course you know how the “supplements” story ends, but this allows runners to appear in more races on the distance racing circuit over the course of the year, meaning more appearance fees for promoters and agents. My source hinted that Kenya’s non-compliant status may not necessarily be an accident, and is certainly not due to resource constraints. He alludes to the fact that Kenya was a signatory to UNESCO’s International Convention Against Doping in Sport and its government has an obligation to comply. So far, it hasn’t.
None of this exonerates either the Kenyans or Russians. The same official said, “The Russians were playing by their own rules and making them up as they went along. They were told repeatedly to fix the problem, but they wouldn’t. Support teams from WADA were even sent to Russia to help address the issues, but the teams met with resistance, falsification of records and residential addresses, given wrong information such as training locations, etc. The IAAF definitely had to take action in this case. It’s not about politics. This had to be done.”
IOC president Thomas Bach (ATR)
Maybe so, but in a rare departure from its ruling, the IAAF created a back door of eligibility for clean Russian athletes who trained outside of Russia to walk through to compete at the Rio games pending a successful case at the Court of Arbitration for Sport. This also applies to Kenyan athletes. What’s not been resolved between the IAAF and the IOC is the jurisdiction of competition. If granted a waiver, the IAAF insists the athletes compete under the Olympic flag. The IOC, however, wants the clean athletes to compete as a part of their national team’s delegations, and for obvious reasons. While Russia is a decent (not great) athletics’ nation, Kenya is virtually an unbeatable powerhouse in the distances. The optics of an Olympics without the Kenyan athletics’ brand (or Kenyan flag), would significantly diminish the quality of the competition. Procedurally, however, the Olympic Charter does not make provisions for the IOC to usurp the judgement of an International Federation in matters unconnected to fair play. Though it’s also worth noting the IOC Executive Committee is likely to have the final say. We’ll see what happens.
The call by IOC President Thomas Bach to convene “an extraordinary summit on doping” in 2017 is both timely and appropriate, and an important step in the right direction. Let’s hope the conference will offer a substantive discussion on sports’ doping in its entirety, complete with bold measures, distilled lines of communication, and clear processes for adjudication, appeal and punishment. Everything should be on the table, including the independent audit of sports federations to ensure the integrity of its officials and its processes. Doping in sport didn’t start overnight, and placing undue expectations on a single summit certainly stretches confidence and expectations. By not taking action immediately, the syllogism fails, and so will the rest of sport as the most trusted form of entertainment.
Written by Idy Uyoe, M.A.
Idy Uyoe (www.idysports.com) is an Olympic scholar, commentator and sports marketing professional. He is an active member of the International Society of Olympic Historians and is the producer and host of the online series The Olympic Moment – with new episodes available on YouTube and Facebook. Follow him on Twitter @idysports.