Nick Butler

Last week began with a World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) Foundation Board meeting in Glasgow, presented as a seminal step and turning-point in the global fight against drugs in sport.

Unfortunately, just like in the weeks beforehand, the subsequent eight days has shown us that there remains a long, long way to go before genuine improvement will be made. Every shuffle forward recently has been followed by a firmer step back.

We have seen WADA remove the accreditation of another laboratory, in Mexico City, and the confirmation of another raft of failed retests from the Beijing and London Games. A ninth placed weightlifter is now in line to receive a bronze medal, and even he was barred from competing at Rio 2016 due to doping. After a few weeks in the wilderness, Russian-linked hacking group Fancy Bears have also upped the ante once again by releasing another batch of documents in an apparent attempt to smear the United States and Great Britain.

A WADA report on testing levels in 2015 was accompanied by a glowing press release about improved levels of testing, but a closer review made it clear how problems remain with testing procedures across many sports and laboratories.

Russia has reacted to reinstatement criteria imposed by the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) with its usual blend of hysterical denial and false equivalence while, to round the week off nicely, more allegations have emerged about alleged bribes paid to the International Association of Athletics Federations top brass in return for the covering up of failed tests.

The prevailing theme here, it struck me once again, is politics. And politics of the darkest, nitty-gritty, smoke filled rooms and behind closed doors kind.

Former UK Sport director of ethics and anti-doping Michele Verroken wrote an article on insidethegames earlier this month in which she expertly outlined what changes are needed and how they could be achieved. "Partnerships" between all relevant bodies would be key, she argued in a piece focusing on fundamental theory rather than the personalities involved.  

The WADA Foundation Board meeting in Glasgow took place in the spirit of harmony but underlying problems certainly still remain ©Getty Images
The WADA Foundation Board meeting in Glasgow took place in the spirit of harmony but underlying problems certainly still remain ©Getty Images

If only the reality of sports politics was so simple.

WADA Foundation Board members have also made this point, only to prove unable to control stronger opinions in both sporting and anti-doping communities.

The IOC play this game better - or worse, depending on how you look at it - than most. The tirade against WADA boss Sir Craig Reedie during the Association of National Olympic Committees (ANOC) General Assembly in Doha, like at August’s International Olympic Committee (IOC) Session in Rio de Janeiro, was spun afterwards as the heartfelt and spontaneous responses of assembled delegates. In reality, however, it was cleverly orchestrated by the Olympic Movement beforehand, right down to the semantics and order of the speeches given. It came across as a rather petty attempt to smear an organisation which defied it so publicly in July by recommending a blanket Russian ban from Rio 2016.

This is partly because it was not done very well. The choice of Spanish Olympic Committee President Alejandro Blanco as the man to lead the charge was one immediate mistake given longstanding doping problems in his country that has included the attempted destruction of the Operation Puerto blood bags. Another who spoke, Ahmed Abou Elgasim Hashim of Sudan, is now being touted as a future secretary general of the Association of National Olympic Committees of Africa. It thus appears that figures like these were speaking so passionately about issues which they have previously never expressed strong opinions partly in order to curry favour with their Olympic masters. A ‘you scratch my back and I will scratch yours’ mentality.

The IOC, increasingly so under Thomas Bach, appear the masters of backroom alliances. Despite their much-lauded transparency, they seem to rely on a network of allies and associates to criticise WADA rather than do it themselves. In Glasgow, it was notable that IOC representatives barely registered opposition to the sanctioning criteria in non-compliance cases proposed by WADA when they had a public opportunity to do so in front of the media lens. Yet we can expect a furious backlash against it in private.

Politics should be a balancing act between ideological principle and pragmatic judgement, but in sport there is invariably only one winner.

Britain’s Adam Pengilly was, lest we forget, the only IOC member to put his hand up in opposition to the IOC Executive Board stance on Russian eligibility in Rio at the August IOC Session. Others agreed with him but did not dare voice this publicly for they knew where their bread was buttered. Even staunch critic Richard Pound and IPC President Sir Philip Craven showed no dissent there, remember, and this happened just a few days before the IPC banned Russia from the Paralympics.

Skeleton athlete turned IOC Athletes' Commission member Adam Pengilly has been virtually the only sporting official not to put pragmatism over politics ©Getty Images
Skeleton athlete turned IOC Athletes' Commission member Adam Pengilly has been virtually the only sporting official not to put pragmatism over politics ©Getty Images

"The system we have means that people fear putting their hand up at times because of the potential consequences," said Pengilly on this theme at the Host Cities conference last week. "If you're an NOC that didn't agree with a decision at ANOC, then you’re not going to put your hand up because it might have implications on the funding you get through Olympic Solidarity. We need to develop our systems to make sure that it’s okay to disagree."

Bach, it must be said, appears a major pitfall here because he seems to take every opinion expressed that differs with his own as a lifelong declaration of war. When asked by a reporter from the Daily Mail about his plans for an independent WADA on his way back from dinner in Doha, the German reportedly quipped back: "Maybe you all need an independence tester when you leave here."

Trouble is, this all gives us observers the impression that the Olympic Movement sees WADA and the conniving media as the real "baddy" rather than Russia and other doping countries. The fact that we are repeatedly told how the reality is different in private meetings, where Bach is apparently far more critical of Russia, matters little. Their agenda is so much more secretive and poorly communicated than WADA’s that people outside the Olympic bubble are turned against them - even if there is some sense in the fundamental restraint they are showing.

We at insidethegames have concluded on WADA's side more often than not in recent months but, while I still maintain that WADA have got a lot of things right this year, they have also made multiple mistakes. Neither should we forget that for every Olympic figure criticising WADA, there is invariably an anti-doping official ready and waiting to respond in kind.

It struck me in Doha how even representatives from International Federations (IFs) generally seen as being strongly anti-doping appeared disillusioned (when speaking off the record) with the drugs testing body. 

The U-turn with meldonium in April was a mess and made things needlessly difficult for IFs. They constantly deny the need for any reform of the system for Therapeutic Use Exemptions, despite lingering suspicions that some athletes have used them as a cloak to disguise cheating. I believe it was important to release the first part of the McLaren Report when they did so soon before Rio 2016, even in its incomplete state, but it is clear this caused a lot of tension with IFs forced to mop up the mess.

Timing then reared its head again when they suspended the Doha Laboratory accreditation as the Olympic Movement gathered in the Qatari capital. Sir Craig claimed this was an administrative error while others claimed it was an unfortunate coincidence that they could not have, and should not have, done anything to change. The diplomatic fallout was inevitable, however, and surely WADA could have waited a few more days before making the announcement? A similar point could be made in relation to the full McLaren Report being unveiled in London on December 9, the day after an IOC Executive Board meeting ends in Lausanne. 

The report due to be released by Richard McLaren (left) on December 9 appears bound to intensify further the IOC and WADA discord ©Getty Images
The report due to be released by Richard McLaren (left) on December 9 appears bound to intensify further the IOC and WADA discord ©Getty Images

WADA and the likes of the United States Anti-Doping Agency can also complain all they like about how the Fancy Bears hacks are an unfair and Russia-orchestrated attempt to mislead and switch the agenda. But the fact is that their security systems let them down, even if, as we are constantly reminded, it was an IOC-account to the Anti-Doping Administration and Management System that was hacked.

My Twitter feed has been awash this week with anti-doping experts (almost all from figures, incidentally, who have been cut out of the reform process) criticising a multitude of problems with current drugs testing procedures. The WADA testing report for 2015 found banned substances in 3,809 samples from 303,369 tests carried out globally last year as opposed to 3,153 from 283,304 samples in 2014. But this figure still seems very low in comparison with the huge numbers of positive retests emerging from Beijing and London samples. The numbers and scope of tests still varies hugely from sport to sport, and I wonder if the new techniques to detect anabolic steroids in the body over a far longer period have been used in regular testing as thoroughly as they were during the retests…?

Both the IOC and anti-doping bodies would blame this on the fact that IFs still operate most testing systems rather than an independent body. What is most important is finding a way to make changes that is realistically possible; something that does not seem to have been successfully proposed so far.

To return to the WADA Foundation Board meeting, it is easy to observe the outcomes in a similarly political light. Sanctions in cases of non-compliance are important and necessary, but for WADA to make it the number one objective so publicly when it was bound to rile the Olympic Movement was an interesting move. 

On the other hand, the IOC seemed to be throwing new ideas around willy-nilly. Restoring the Osaka Rule by which doping cheats who have received a ban of six months or more are automatically banned from the next Olympic Games is a good idea, but only if it survives legal scrutiny, and this has not happened in the past. Their call for an independent WADA President swiftly backed by ANOC in Doha also came from the left field. Again, it seems a good idea if they and Governments can agree on the right person, but nobody appears to have the foggiest clue who it should be.

Goalposts will change again after the McLaren Report is released, and the WADA and IOC war could re-explode if the Canivet and Smirnov investigations commissioned by the latter body conclude differently.

But, at present, it appears important to point out that both sides have made mistakes in recent years and, rather than conspiring to smear and undermine each other, anti-doping will only truly be reformed if they genuinely work together.