On Thursday the World Anti-Doping Agency failed, deliberately and with purpose. At a meeting in the Seychelles, WADA’s executive committee voted 9-2 to reinstate Russia’s anti-doping entity, RUSADA, under softer, potentially unenforceable conditions. Russia ran the most significant doping system in the last 40 years everywhere it could. Russia is back. And WADA failed because it was designed to fail.
“WADA cannot win, but everybody right now is playing catch-up on WADA.” said Washington, D.C., attorney David W. Larkin, who has deep experience dealing with international sports and its regulatory paths. “If you watched WADA for a long time, you know WADA aren’t the good guys, and WADA aren’t the bad guys. They’re somewhere in between.”
“The reality is if you watched WADA when (Russian whistleblow Yulia) Stepanova went there in 2010 and said, ‘Hey, Russia’s got a problem,’ and nothing happened. Then (Russian athletics coach Oleg) Popov went to them in 2013 and said, ‘Hey, Russia’s got a problem.’ And nothing happened.”
“After the McLaren Report everybody held WADA up as the big saviour, but if you knew the background you were like, wait a minute.
“They’re set up to fail.”
It’s simple when you think about it, and inevitable. WADA’s two conditions for Russian reinstatement were simple: One was that Russia publicly accept the results of the devastating reports detailing the extent of state-sponsored doping, produced by Canadian professor Richard McLaren. The second was to surrender access to the discredited Moscow laboratory and its estimated 9,000 questionable, re-testable samples.
Here’s what WADA got: No acknowledgement of the McLaren report, but instead acknowledgement of the tame IOC-produced Schmid report instead, which excised the references to the Russian state’s role in the conspiracy. And it was assured that Russia — which, when confronted with charges of vote-buying in its successful bid for the 2018 World Cup, said it had no records because the computers had been destroyed — will grant access to the lab.
Whether it was cynicism or naiveté, athletes and advocates of clean sport were despondent. Jim Walden, the lawyer for Russian doctor and whistleblower Grigory Rodchenkov, said in a statement: “WADA’s decision to reinstate Russia represents the greatest treachery against clean athletes in Olympic history.” Beckie Scott, who remains on the WADA athletes council but resigned from the WADA committee that recommended the compromise, told the CBC, “I feel this was an opportunity for WADA and they have dealt a devastating blow to clean sport.” Vice-president Linda Hofstad Helleiand, one of two WADA executive council members who voted against the compromise, ended her statement by saying, “Today we failed the clean athletes of the world.”
Luger Sam Edney was on the Canadian relay team that finished fourth in Sochi, was elevated to bronze after the second-place Russian team was stripped of its medal over doping, and dropped back to fourth after the Russians won their appeal. Only one of the four Russians was cleared to compete in Pyeongchang.
“The deflating feeling right now is it feels like no matter how strong our voice is, the people who are supposed to be protecting that integrity are the ones that are blowing it,” said Edney in a phone interview. “WADA are the ones that need to be committed to protecting the athletes, and they’re letting them down, and they’re letting the sport down. That’s the sad thing.”
“It sends a disastrous message to the sporting world,” said Canadian speed skater Denny Morrison. “Cheat and you’ll get away with it. It’s like many problems in sports, and the world: if the goal to encourage a positive change, we can’t let the perpetrators continue without consequences.”
But as the Olympic movement has long made crystal clear, athletes aren’t in charge, and anti-doping advocates aren’t, either. WADA is half funded by the IOC and half funded by governments around the world, including Russia. Its executive board reflects that split, and WADA chair Sir Craig Reedie has been an IOC member since 1994. The IOC twisted itself around the flagpoles to avoid banning Russia from the 2016 and 2018 Olympics, and reinstated Russia four days after the Pyeongchang Games ended. The IOC never wanted Russia to go away in the first place.
So what was WADA supposed to do? Hold the line, all alone, with the IOC leaning one way and almost nobody with access to the purse-strings pushing back? As someone who has been around international sports and politics for a long time once said, quite often the real nature of international sports has nothing to do with sports.
So protests are scattered, and largely concentrated in a few Western countries that are fully outside any possible Russian sphere of direct influence, the United States perhaps aside. Even there, the IOC’s presence could be felt. Canada is pushing a 2026 Winter Olympics bid in Calgary, and the Canadian Olympic Committee was notably quiet this week, slipping a gentle statement opposing the WADA compromise into the world late Wednesday evening, as quietly as it could.
The fish rots from the head and money colonizes everything, so fighters for truly clean sport are hopelessly outgunned. They’re on the outside, even when they’re inside. Edney and about a dozen other athletes talked in Pyeongchang about boycotting the closing ceremony if Russia was allowed their colours and their flag back. Athletes, structurally disadvantaged as they are, might be the only thing that could move the needle away from needles. A boycott is the impossible weapon.
“You know what? I think if this crap keeps happening, there absolutely could be that,” Edney said. “Maybe it takes a number of athletes getting robbed of their ability to compete, maybe that’s finally what’s going to make these nations realize this is happening.”
But for now, governments are not roused; resistance is based in small western pockets. NBC hasn’t been shown to care, and sponsors are quiet as the grave. The decision came the same day The Associated Press reported on Pyeongchang 2018 seven months after the Games, where venues already sit empty and may be demolished. The IOC is running out of cities to put on their biennial television show, and its least questioning partners tend not to be those western liberal democracies any more. If Calgary doesn’t get the 2026 Olympics — and politics and direct democracy could still sink the bid — Turkey probably will.
So the testers let Russia walk, and they banked that nobody cares enough about the damage done to clean sport in the bargain. Russia can host international sporting events again, too. If FIFA and the IOC have taught us anything, it’s that the amount of money that can be spent on sports is an ocean encircling the globe, and its floods and tendrils and storms can float some boats and sink others. Russia is back, but Russia never really went away. And WADA failed because outside of the quaint ideas of fairness and sport for its own purpose, there was never enough of a compelling reason for it to succeed.