Liam Morgan

In many ways, it was fitting the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) held its biannual Foundation Board meeting in a country dubbed the "land of fire".

Critics believe WADA's credibility, or what is left of it, has gone up in flames following the controversial decision to lift the suspension on Russia and the subsequent diatribe between the leadership and athletes and officials who have called for dramatic change.

Previous Foundation Board meetings, especially throughout the fallout to the Russian doping scandal and WADA's at times hapless response to it, have been ablaze with public slanging matches between those on each side of the divide.

And even though the latest gathering of the 38-member body in Baku may not have been as fiery as those to have gone before, the perilous situation the anti-doping world finds itself in could reignite at any moment.

There were several issues discussed in Azerbaijan's capital which were ripe for a resumption of the open tension between members of the sports movement and representatives of the public authorities that has dominated Executive Committee and Foundation Board meetings in recent years.

Russia, the spark for many a heated debate over the past four years or so, governance reforms and the clamour from athletes over the state of anti-doping to name just three.

The ammunition might have been there but the tone of the discussions was far more conciliatory.

The tone of the Foundation Board meeting in Baku differed enormously from previous gatherings of the 38-member body ©Getty Images
The tone of the Foundation Board meeting in Baku differed enormously from previous gatherings of the 38-member body ©Getty Images

Aside from a particularly aggressive intervention from New Zealand's Clayton Cosgrove, who was seemingly speaking on behalf of some of the public authorities when he attacked the way WADA had dealt with the alleged bullying of Beckie Scott, the conversation - on the surface at least - was largely genial.

This time, the condemnation and disapproval was more inherent than direct, the criticism more implied than explicit.

Of course, at Foundation Board meetings - which are open to the media - we often get a sanitised version of what took place at the closed-door gathering of the Executive Committee the previous day.

But it appears members were instructed to scale back their attacks in Baku, particularly given the global outcry WADA has been subjected to since the Executive Committee reinstated the Russian Anti-Doping Agency in the far-flung location of the Seychelles in September.

Either that or those on the Foundation Board chose to air their grievances privately instead of publicly, perhaps realising that they would benefit politically from doing so.

Even the often-outspoken vice-president Linda Helleland has rethought her strategy. After months of public outbursts - many of which were necessary - she chose a rather different tack in Baku, opting for peace-making instead of provocation by tweeting how WADA was "going in the right direction".

Still, there was plenty for ardent followers of WADA and the anti-doping movement to get their teeth stuck in to.

Topping the Baku bill was an update on the progress of Russian authorities towards the crunch December 31 deadline to grant WADA access to the treasure trove of samples and data stored at the Moscow Laboratory and the approval of the governance reform package proposed by the working group.

WADA President Sir Craig Reedie was in bullish mood in Baku ©Getty Images
WADA President Sir Craig Reedie was in bullish mood in Baku ©Getty Images

WADA President Sir Craig Reedie revealed a delegation from the global anti-doping watchdog would travel to the laboratory, sealed-off as part of an ongoing investigation, on November 28 for a preliminary meeting to determine exactly how they obtain the access to the facility.

Sir Craig was hopeful the outcome would allow a team expected to consist of five people, three "independent" WADA officials and two from Russia, to be able to work on gathering the data and samples stored at the laboratory shortly after.

There are no guarantees this will go the way WADA want it to, though, and time is of the essence with the clock ticking ominously towards to the deadline.

The bullish 77-year-old then gave a 100 per cent guarantee that Russian authorities would meet the deadline amid suggestions they may either fail to do so or that the data they hand over is incomplete - comments which could come back to haunt WADA and its President.

"I find it almost inconceivable to believe that we don't complete this project in time," Sir Craig said.

While gaining access is uncertain, one thing which is entirely conceivable is the vilification WADA will receive if they fail to take strong action should Russia fail to comply with the ultimatum.

Rumours were circulating around the hotel lobby prior to last week's meetings that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) were pushing for the international standards for code compliance - which provide the barometer for sanctions on Russia if the authorities fail to meet the deadline - to be considerably weakened.

Details were not forthcoming from Executive Committee members but it would not be too much of a stretch to link their supposed attempt at softening the standards with the Russian situation.

The suggestion is that the IOC, and its President Thomas Bach, are expressing fear behind the scenes that Russia will miss the deadline. This would, in theory, spark action from WADA and put the country's participation at Tokyo 2020 in jeopardy.

Sceptics would point to how WADA effectively reneged on its initial roadmap to ensure RUSADA was declared compliant in September as an example of how the under-fire organisation has not always followed through on its word but, to many, it is inconceivable that stern action is not taken if December 31 comes and goes without the Russian authorities doing what has been demanded of them.

Yes, this is a hypothetical scenario but it is one the IOC and WADA are wary of.

Russia's compliance was not the only key takeaway from Baku as a series of governance reforms, which could have a significant impact on WADA in the future, were given the green light by the Foundation Board.

Under the changes, a President who is "independent" - a trait yearned for by officials in the sporting world but one which is rarely achieved - could be installed as early as 2023, while the Executive Committee will also grow by two members to 14.

The most interesting reform to me is the establishment of a Nominations Committee, which will be given all sorts of power and responsibility.

The Committee will be comprised of five members, all of whom will be appointed by the Executive Committee.

Once formed, the new group will immediately play a role in the process to decide the successor to Sir Craig as President, before their scope and influence is expanded for the following election, where they will be required to officially vet the candidates.

The Nominations Committee will eventually be responsible for recruiting, reviewing and verifying the candidates for President and vice-president, but their remit does not stop there.

Conducting a "skills mapping exercise" to identify the missing attributes on the Executive Committee when considering the independent additions to the 12-member body is another of the panel’s tasks, while the group will also recommend appointments to the newly-created Ethics Board.

In short, almost every part of the reforms hailed by WADA as "wide-ranging" will go through this Nominations Committee, who will act on proposals from both the sports movement and Government representatives.

This has all the hallmarks of IOC tactics and policy. The IOC likes to have the power centralised in one place, demonstrated by the control exerted by the Executive Board, and it would not be surprising to see the Nominations Committee put under pressure by sporting officials in WADA to ensure they get the people they want in the positions they want.

The IOC are also keen the Ethics Board does not have sanctioning power. Contrary to the preference of WADA, the sports movement wants the Executive Committee to have the final say on cases and potential punishments for those who fall foul of the new set of ethical rules.

After no consensus was reached on increased athlete representation on the Executive Committee and Foundation Board, the WADA Athlete Committee has agreed to set up a working group to determine the best way forward.

Sir Craig and WADA director general Olivier Niggli have not been the only ones to highlight the uncertainty as to who exactly represents the global wishes of athletes.

A group entitled “Athletes for Clean Sport”, who claim to fulfil that role, has emerged in recent weeks but their calls for reform have hardly been indicative of the global athletes’ viewpoint; in fact, their press releases have been attributed to competitors almost entirely from the western world.

The job at hand now is for athletes, who unquestionably deserve additional seats at the decision-making table, to mobilise and come up with a feasible strategy which will ultimately help achieve their aim.

While a working group is often corporate speak for a delay, the Athlete Committee, and those who have rallied against the WADA administration, seem intent on reaching an agreement to ensure their increasingly loud voices are heard.

The athlete groups of WADA and the IOC, who have been at loggerheads throughout the Russian scandal, have finally realised collaboration, rather than public criticism, is the best option as they attempted to patch up their strained relations at a meeting before the Foundation Board.

This trend continued on social media, with even those who have been the most critical of WADA - such as American steeplechase world champion Emma Coburn - declaring her support for the "positive steps" taken in Baku.

It remains to be seen whether they are enough to extinguish the fire which still hovers over WADA and the anti-doping movement.