I was four years old when my Mom put me on cross-country skis for the first time in my life. As she tells it, I shuffled around the backyard for a minute or two, then, tearfully threw myself to the ground and demanded to know when we were going in for hot chocolate. My dear Mom propped me back up on my feet, dusted off the snow, and told me to "just keep trying".
Like the vast sweeping skies and rolling prairie landscape surrounding my little Canadian town, sport - to me - represented an opportunity that seemed endless and full of hope. I revelled in the camaraderie created by the spirit of friendly competition, the community of like-minded individuals I discovered, and the passionate pursuit of excellence.
I was driven, determined and full of idealistic aspirations. University, financial security, job skills and preparation for life-after-sport passed me by as I kept my sights trained on the ultimate goal and channelled all that I had, all that I was, toward it. My dream was to stand on the top step of the Olympic podium with a medal around my neck, and flag around my shoulders. The rigours of ruthless training, the fatigue of endless travel, the obstacles and adversity; all of it manageable and worthwhile, as long as I could somehow, "just keep trying".
When I was 27 years old, I won a bronze medal at the 2002 Olympic Games in Salt Lake City. It was the first for Canada in our sport, and a moment of indescribable happiness and pride. Though I was not naive to the risk of doping, I was discomfited to the extreme by the sinister possibility lurking in the shadowy corners of my beautiful sport. More than anything I wanted to believe the playing field was level; that the values I had lived, trained and competed with my entire life, were upheld by all.
It was not to be. Days after the race, the gold and silver medallists in my event tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs, and I became an unwitting poster-child for clean sport as the courts twisted in the wind for two years before awarding me Olympic gold. Though I was relieved for it to be finally over, the entire experience was a let-down I could not have imagined. Although I had gained a new medal and title, something much deeper and profoundly more meaningful, had been lost.
I write this today because despite my experiences, I still believe in sport and the power it holds to bring out the best in humanity. I’ve seen first-hand how the Olympic Games can promote friendship and solidarity across the globe in a way unmatched by almost any other human endeavour.
And yet, of all the foundational principles upon which Olympism rests, perhaps no single value is under assail today more than the notion of fair play. Worse yet, the organisation tasked with upholding the values and principles of a level playing field, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) has come under intense criticism and scrutiny. Why? For successfully fulfilling their mandate, and taking the necessary decisions.
There is an undeniable threat to the integrity of sport today, and the exposure and ongoing discussion around it has presented the Olympic Movement with a critical decision on how to best protect sport from performance-enhancing drug use. It also gives us an opportunity to refocus the lens through which we view clean competition.
So where do we go from here?
First, we need to get together. It is unacceptable that when it comes to clean, fair sport, there is a sense of discord when there should be harmony. Almost every other day someone new from the Olympic family takes to the media with the critical claim that the global anti-doping "system is broken". The issue has become so deeply divisive and conflicted among stakeholders that it seems athletes have another competitor in the ring - politics.
To be clear, "the system" is not broken. If it were, the exposure of systematic and state-controlled doping in Russia by WADA would never have happened. Anti-doping is a complex issue and of course there are improvements that can be made, but if there is one certainty in this space, it’s that cynicism alone will not win this fight. If this is really about clean athletes and the protection of integrity in sport, then we can, and must, do better.
One of the biggest lessons reinforced throughout the Russia situation is that in order to be successful, anti-doping must be carried out by a strong, independent organisation. And with that, WADA must be supported with the autonomy to properly monitor compliance, apply sanctions, and serve as the regulatory body for anti-doping efforts around the world. The current debate surrounding the future of the anti-doping movement must result in a strengthened, independent and empowered WADA, not, as some others would like, a controlled or diluted WADA.
Second, we need to fund the organisation better. If doping truly is the single greatest threat to sport, and if we’re serious about combating the issues, we need to ask ourselves, what is the cost? What price are we willing to pay for clean, legitimate sport? And in the answer, we must find new ways of funding the quest for a level playing field.
Finally, we know from experience that whistle-blowers are paramount to exposing performing-enhancing drug use in sport. There must be a strong framework and legal mechanism that supports and encourages those with information to come forward. This cannot be a maybe, it is a must.
I often tell people that sport has given me everything. It gave me experiences I will never forget, and friendships I will always cherish. It helped me be a better friend and parent, and it taught me that when things get tough, you have to find the strength and the courage to do whatever it takes to forge a path forward.
We are in such a time now, and the importance of the path ahead of us cannot be underestimated. We have to be solution-focused and can no longer afford to become subject to the politics, conflicted interests, and game-playing that has held us back for so long.
Having reached this pivotal juncture, it is essential we support and strengthen WADA - the organisation tasked with upholding the principles of true sport - and, in doing so, work together to ensure the Olympic Games remain what they were always intended to be - the best of us.