Nick Butler

Another week has gone by, and, as is invariably the way these days, it has brought with it another set of fresh difficulties for the International Olympic Committee (IOC). More questions have been raised by Brazilian police over what exact role the organisation played in the process to award Irish ticketing contracts, while its President, Thomas Bach, has also been criticised for his, probably connected, decision to skip the Paralympics.

It is the IOC's response to Russian doping which remains the biggest problem, however, and the reason why much press and public opinion has hardened from nagging discontent to open warfare. If they had handled this differently I imagine they would have received far more sympathy on other issues.

A large part of this was simply their decision to oppose the World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA) call for a Russian blanket ban following the publication of the McLaren Report. But, more broadly, it has been the secretive, convoluted and contradictory way they have handled it all - saying one thing in public and then another behind closed doors.

The pressure is unlikely to ease in the coming weeks.

More revelations on alleged state-sponsored doping in Russia are due to be unveiled by Canadian lawyer Richard McLaren at some point next month. An Olympic Summit will also convene on October 8 to discuss fundamental changes to sport’s response to anti-doping.

I had a fascinating discussion over the weekend with former WADA director general David Howman. The hard-hitting Kiwi is now free from administrative shackles so free to publicly speak his mind to an even greater extent than he has always done and he did not hold back in his damning of the IOC.

WADA, he claims, should have been far quicker to defend themselves from the stream of abuse they received from Bach and his acolytes at the IOC Session in Rio de Janeiro. The anti-doping body should also have referred the IOC to the independent Compliance Review Committee for consideration over their refusal to back-up WADA's recommendation to give Russia a blanket ban, he claims, as well as for their subsequent attempt to bar Russian athletes with previous doping sanctions.

WADA President Sir Craig Reedie, with whom Howman did not always see eye-to-eye over their three years working together, hit-back by insisting that they are making their opinions felt and have enough support from key people. Criticising the IOC in public would not help the situation, especially because the media are airing most of their grievances for them.

WADA President Sir Craig Reedie (left) and his former director general David Howman have advocated similar but different approaches ©Getty Images
WADA President Sir Craig Reedie (left) and his former director general David Howman have advocated similar but different approaches ©Getty Images

The pair agree on fundamentals but clash over strategy. Sir Craig would prefer a more diplomatic approach wherever possible, whereas Howman now believes open conflict is more effective.

The Scot only relinquished his role as IOC vice-president last month and some believe he is still too chummy and sympathetic with Bach and his supporters. My impression is that we should give him the benefit of the doubt. He showed in July that he is prepared to stand-up for WADA and challenge the IOC when necessary and I feel he will do that again if upcoming meetings prove unsuccessful.

War is merely politics by other means, remember, as Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz once said.

But what exactly is the conflict and who is the enemy?

To an extent it is Russia so long as they continue to hit-back and claim they have done nothing wrong. Yet, there is a growing feeling that the WADA and IOC collision course is going to explode back into the open when the future of anti-doping is discussed.

It is thought that the IOC are in favour of forming a new "Integrity Unit" in order to collectively administer anti-doping, match-fixing and corruption policies. In theory, this would be a means to increase independence as well as impartiality and efficiency.

And yet…there may be another objective. "This concept of some kind of integrity unit is something I have talked about and supported for a long time, but not in the form the IOC are thought to be advocating," said Howman. "For them it seems to be about retaining control rather than ensuring full independence."

Sir Craig added: "We have heard some commentary but have no detailed information as to how such a unit could interrelate with the long established independent status of WADA; and, the global consensus that was reached between the sports movement and Governments of the world, which led to the first World Anti-Doping Code that was introduced in 2003 and subsequent revisions."

Rumour, and it all remains rumours because they have responded to our questions on this with a brick wall of silence, is that the IOC might be looking to push WADA out of the way completely. 

Sir Craig indicated to my colleague David Owen during an interview in May that they felt they were on the same page as the IOC and that WADA would certainly be the main string-pullers even if another body carried out some new services. But so much has changed since then.

Bach's stance at the IOC Session was so much more critical of the anti-doping body. There he called for a "full review" of the WADA anti-doping system in order to find a more "robust and efficient" replacement. This, he added, requires "clear responsibilities, more transparency, more independence and better worldwide harmonisation".

It is hard to read too much into Bach’s answers in press conferences these days because there is so much political double-speak, but the tone here did differ with previous messages after the last two Olympic Summits in November and June. There, an "independent" system with WADA very much at the fore was promoted.

Thomas Bach has repeatedly called for a more
Thomas Bach has repeatedly called for a more "independent" anti-doping system but details remain hazy ©Getty Images

It is surely unlikely that such an Integrity Unit could operate in house within the IOC Ethics and Compliance Department headed by Päquerette Girard Zappelli. What appears more likely is that they could coordinate this work with an external organisation. The Doha-based International Centre for Sport Security (ICSS) and the wider Sport Integrity Global Alliance (SIGA) are two that have been mooted and would seemingly fit the bill, although ICSS have indicated to us that they have had no such approach. 

This will be discussed, however, at a WADA "Think Tank" due to take place next week in Lausanne ahead of the Olympic Summit. WADA, remember, share the IOC view that reform is required and it is worth noting that the public utterances of both sides have been similar. But they believe the system is broken "partly" and not "completely" and that the key issue is therefore finding which areas they need to change.

Three specific topics have been cited for discussion at the "Think Tank".

1)       Preventing corruption and bribery practices in the anti-doping process

2)       Implementing stronger consequences for non-compliance

3)       Reviewing WADA’s governance and funding structure

Of these, it is the second which is likely to cause the most friction. At the moment, WADA does not have any specific power other than a vague statement of opposition. Countries declared non-compliant are not automatically barred from competing or even hosting events. Should they not have specific power to legislate against erring nations or sports?

This would avoid the ridiculous situation which arose last week in biathlon when the 2021 World Championships was awarded to, you guessed it, Russia.

But the IOC and most International Federations will not want to relinquish any power here and will be reluctant to delegate authority to a body which has shown it will not always do what they want.

Funding and governance are other key issues because of the way WADA is constituted and funded on a 50-50 split between the sports world and public authorities. The 38 members of the Foundation Board are divided between those who represent the Government they belong to and those who effectively represent the IOC. Remarkably, one of this latter group is Anders Besseberg, the President of the International Biathlon Union, who so rewarded Russia last week.

The decision to award the Biathlon World Championships to Russia is one example of why WADA believe they should be able to apply firmer sanctions ©Getty Images
The decision to award the Biathlon World Championships to Russia is one example of why WADA believe they should be able to apply firmer sanctions ©Getty Images

Clearly there are too many conflicts of interest here. To an extent this is unavoidable because the whole fabric of sport is built on such clashes. But Howman believes that everyone who sits on the Board must, first and foremost, support WADA’s interests rather than anyone else’s. This is certainly not the case at the moment.

It appears certain, however, that many of the world’s Governments would oppose any decision which is perceived as centralising power in the hands of the IOC. Many of these have come out in support of WADA, both in public and private. 

Broadly speaking, those in the sports movement want WADA to be a body which provides services, while Governments are more concerned about regulatory-power. WADA has always fulfilled both of these roles together and its leaders give the impression of wanting to continue this rather than tilting in one particular direction.

Another key group are the world’s National Anti-Doping Organisations. They appear to be increasingly orchestrated by United States Anti-Doping Agency chief executive Travis Tygart, the man largely credited as having "brought-down" Lance Armstrong who has proved himself to be a hawkish advocate of a tough stance - on Russia and all other issues.

The existence of these groups explain why it will be much harder for the IOC to "finish-off" WADA like it effectively did to SportAccord after former President Marius Vizer spoke out in 2015. There are too many important voices from outside the sporting bubble who will be immune to the quid pro quo nature of sports politics.

A new system should be in operation by the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, it is hoped, and the IOC have called for a grand-sounding Extraordinary World Conference on Doping to take place next year.

It will be fascinating to see how this dispute pans out over coming weeks and months.