Mike Rowbottom

The hearing convened in Washington D.C yesterday by the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe - aka the Helsinki Commission - into the effects of doping in international sport may not have produced any startling new facts. But it very definitely generated a concerted challenge to those who feel that criminalising doping is not the way forward.

In gathering a panel of witnesses that included Russian whsitleblowers Yuliya Stepanova and - in absentia but contributing very vividly - Dr Grigory Rodchenkov, the former head of the Russian Anti-Doping Agency, the Commission produced a ringing re-statement of the case against Russia in particular but also against the inherent injustices and evils of doping.

In introducing the speakers addressing the topic of "The State of Play: Globalized Corruption, State-Run Doping, and International Sport", the Commission asserted that doping "devalues sport, robs athletes and sponsors, and contributes to global corruption".

And this gathering in Washington was asked to address how the United States can legally penalise doping and corruption in sport, as it does with other instances of international crime.

The Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act, a bipartisan legislation introduced by Commissioners Sheila Jackson Lee and Michael Burgess, seeks to implement criminal penalties for doping at major international competitions.

Rodchenkov commented, via his attorney Jim Walden: "I hope that my difficult decision to come forward and tell the truth will lead to continuing reforms.

"I believe the Helsinki Commission's leadership is critical, and I fully support the proposed legislation.

The Helsinki Commission hearing in Washington D.C sought testimony on the impact of doping in international sport ©Twitter
The Helsinki Commission hearing in Washington D.C sought testimony on the impact of doping in international sport ©Twitter

"I am humbled and grateful it is named after me, and I hope I can continue to be a force for good."

The rest of Rodchenkov's statement made for chilling hearing.

"Again, I wish to apologise to the world for my part in the Russian state-sponsored doping system," he said.

"During the time I ran the Moscow Lab my orders came from the top of the Russian Federation.

"Putin said 'Russia must win at any cost' and the Ministry of Sports executed that command by substantially improving our ability to deliver performance enhancing drugs secretly.

"To refuse to go along would have been a death sentence."

Commissioners heard from Dagmar Freitag, Chairwoman of the Sports Committee of the German Bundestag, who discussed Germany's successful efforts to criminalise doping, and from US skeleton Olympian Katie Uhlaender, who testified about the personal impact of doping, including the moment she believed she lost out on a podium finish that could have changed the course of her career.

Also on the panel of witnesses was the United States Anti-Doping Agency's (USADA) chief executive Travis Tygart, a man who demonstrated his tenacity and courage in facing down the US cyclist whose revealed doping resulted in the annulment of seven Tour de France titles, Lance Armstrong. 

He was described by USADA as ringleader of "the most sophisticated, professionalised and successful doping programme that sport has ever seen".

The allegations that have been levelled at Russia by whistleblowers such as Rodchenkov and Stepanova make that programme look small-time by comparison.

In his testimony, Tygart repeated his damning of the International Olympic Committee's (IOC) position - in contradiction to that of the International Paralympic Committee - in allowing Russian athletes to compete at the Rio 2016 Games and, having subsequently insisted its athletes compete under a neutral flag at the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Games, in revoking that sanction just three days after the Closing Ceremony.

"The corruption has been proven to have been orchestrated and supported by Russian Government and sport officials within the Russian system," he said. 

"The scandal spread across 30-plus sports, lasting from at least 2011 to 2015. The evidence clearly shows at least two Olympics Games, and possibly hundreds of other competitions, were corrupted, failing to fully deliver on their promise.

"At the end of the day, despite mountains of evidence and vocal opposition from anti-doping groups - ourselves included - the IOC chose not to stand up for clean athletes and against institutionalised doping.

"Instead, the IOC welcomed the Russian Olympic Committee to the Rio Games. Still attempting to recover from its failure to take a firm stand against corruption prior to the Rio Games and fumbling around with Russia's refusal to acknowledge and fix the corruption, shockingly the IOC eventually only suspended the Russian Olympic Committee for a few weeks and allowed over 160 Russian athletes to compete in the 2018 Winter Olympic Games.

"On behalf of those we serve along with anti-doping leaders from around the world, we have been consistent and firm, the IOC missed - or ignored - a defining moment to confront, in the clearest way possible, the win-at-all-costs culture of corruption through doping in global sport.

"It was an opportunity to draw an unambiguous line in the sand; a chance to stand up for clean athletes - a chance to show clean athletes they cared, to send a message, loud and clear, that this type of fraudulent behavior will not be tolerated in Olympic sport. Yet, when the decisive moment arrived, when the lights were shining brightest, the IOC failed to lead.

"Certainly, history will not judge that decision kindly."

 However, Tygart maintained, out of the Russian doping scandal "two silver linings" had emerged.

"The first is more than ever before athletes are mobilising, voicing their opinions and fighting for a level playing field," he said.

"And second is that we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to break through entrenched positions for the good of clean athletes and the future of sport. We have the chance to implement the reforms necessary to make sure the kind of state-supported doping we saw in Russia is never again allowed to abuse athletes by forcing them to endanger their health and safety to use dangerous drugs for a sport and a Government system's bad purpose.

"To get there, the road to reform starts with independence.

"The most vital principle of an effective anti-doping system is that it must be free from the influence of sport governing bodies. It must be independent and serious about protecting clean athletes. 

"Since our founding in 2000, we at USADA have advocated for a clear separation between those who promote sport and those who police it. To do so otherwise, we believe, is to encourage the fox to guard the henhouse. No matter how well intended it might begin, it simply does not work.

Travis Tygart, chief executive of the US Anti-Doping Agency, believes urgent changes in IOC and WADA practice are necessary to safeguard clean athletes in future ©Getty Images
Travis Tygart, chief executive of the US Anti-Doping Agency, believes urgent changes in IOC and WADA practice are necessary to safeguard clean athletes in future ©Getty Images

"This matter of independence is without question the most important issue facing global anti-doping efforts today. In fact, it's likely the entire Russian state-supported doping scandal would have been exposed much sooner by the many good men and women staffed at the global oversight body for anti-doping in sport - the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) - had its governance not been hamstrung by its own lack of true independence.

"The good news is that WADA's conflicted governance model could be easily solved by removing sport leaders from the WADA leadership and implementing a proper conflict-of interest policy which prohibits governing members from simultaneously holding a governing role within a sports organisation under WADA's jurisdiction.

"The fix for the IOC - which has experienced significant backlash from clean athletes in the wake of its inaction and poor handling of this sordid affair - is just as simple. In fact, we've said publicly on numerous occasions that if the IOC really wanted to put clean athletes and fair play first, they could.

"We believe that they could do it today. Since this Russian sport corruption was exposed, at least 37 National Anti-Doping Organisations from around the world, with the support of athletes and others, have put forth a series of specific proposals designed to reform and strengthen the global anti-doping model. The path forward is outlined in what has been called the Copenhagen Reform Declaration."

These proposed reforms, Tygart points out, seek to remove the fundamental conflict of interest that exists when anti-doping decisions are controlled by sport organisations, to strengthen WADA through improved independence, transparency, and increased investment, and to increase and make clear WADA's ability to investigate, monitor compliance and impose sanctions. This would mean, it is claimed, that countries and organisations which engage in state-supported doping are held accountable.

The Reform would also seek to provide the opportunity for athletes who have been robbed by doping to have "significant and meaningful recognition and celebration, including the swift reallocation of any medals", and to increase support and protection for whistleblowers around the world."

Among Tygart's rallying cries yesterday was this: "We have arrived at a critical juncture for the soul of sport - a moment of truth, if you will."

The question is, will the rallying cries result in legislation?