Nick Butler

After months of wrangling, Britain finally began its formal break-up from the European Union last week. Most of the mandarins and politicians involved in hammering out a deal now agree on the broad terms. It is the finer details of who, what, when and why which are causing the greatest headaches.

Swap the corridors of Brussels and Westminster for plush lobbies in Lausanne and Montreal and the process to reform global anti-doping systems is following a rather similar path. There is some consensus on the fundamentals but bitter divisions on the finer points, some of which are as fine as an intricate understanding of complex legal and medical nuances.

Having brokered an uneasy ceasefire to halt the pitched warfare of 2016, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) now claim to be united in pursuit of a similar course. They agree on the basic need of an "independent" system separate from the hazy agendas and priorities of sporting authorities. A clearer sanctioning process appears another broad but universal aim.

Of course, key differences still exist and there are factions on both sides expressing far more radical and controversial ideas.

It remains unclear what ideas will ultimately be put forward, how exactly they will work and when they will come into operation. Questions of "How much?" and "Who will foot the bill?" are also still unsolved.

The IOC circulated 12 reforming proposals during their Executive Board meeting in Pyeongchang last month.

There were key points which hogged the headlines:

  • While there should be no direct sporting involvement in testing and sanctioning, it would be lunacy to prevent sport administrators from having any governance role within the revamped WADA Foundation Board and Executive Committee.
  • National Anti-Doping Organisations (NADOs) are also subject to conflicts of interest by virtue of their close relations with Governments. They must also be kept independent.

Both points were predictably criticised soon after by anti-doping groups. The first also directly contradicted a proposal made shortly beforehand by the United States Olympic Committee, which called for "no person serving in a governance role in the IOC, any NOC (National Olympic Committee), any IF (International Federation), or ANOC (Association of National Olympic Committees)" to serve on a WADA Board. So even sport cannot agree here.

Thomas Bach and the International Olympic Committee Executive Board announced their 12 proposals to help combat doping during a meeting in Pyeongchang last month ©Getty Images
Thomas Bach and the International Olympic Committee Executive Board announced their 12 proposals to help combat doping during a meeting in Pyeongchang last month ©Getty Images

But, to look at it from the IOC's perspective, there seems little benefit of excluding experts from the process, either from the sporting or governance side, so long as their involvement remains at an executive rather than an implementation level. They must also be tempered by more "independent" figures from other walks of life. One possible idea I heard was for a 13 member WADA Executive Committee consisting of two members from sport, two from Governments, two athletes and seven others.

Increasing athlete representatives and electing rather than appointing them, is another idea proposed by the IOC. Clearly, this makes sense. The only question I have is how the IOC would react if someone is elected who does not necessarily fit with their agenda. British fencer Laurence Halstead, for instance, who tweeted last week that "there is a definite smugness about the IOC which, if turned to humility, could actually bring about the Olympic changes that are needed". 

Last year the IOC seemed very supportive of athletes' bodies which backed their agenda over Russia, like those from the World Olympians Association and ANOC, but less so of those more critical… Of course, you could say pretty much exactly the same about WADA as well.

Including an active athlete among the representatives who is currently subject to anti-doping testing is another idea. Could they also approach someone from a - WADA compliant - professional league rather than just those from Olympic sports?

All sides agree on the need for a "neutral" WADA President. But how "neutral" do they need to be? Certainly, they cannot be a serving IOC vice-president as Sir Craig Reedie was for the first three years of his tenure. Or, indeed, an ordinary IOC member as he still is. But, so long as they are not serving in an active role, does it matter if they are still indirectly affiliated with either the sporting or Government side? Probably not so long as other checks and balances are working.

Regarding NADO impartiality, I also think the IOC raise a valid point. It has clearly been a problem in Kenya and Russia, but also elsewhere. There are several examples of suspiciously short suspensions which conveniently expire shortly before an Olympic Games. 

The 13-month ban handed to Norwegian cross-country skier Therese Johaug, something currently being probed by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), is one possible example. When Jamaica announced the formation of their new NADO Management Board at a meeting last month, they added that it was "appointed and funded by the Ministry of Sport". Surely this is a step too far?

On the other hand, a NADO's primary responsibility is to administer anti-doping programmes, whereas International Federations have such a wide range of other interests that there appears a much larger scope for conflicts of interests. Foxes and henhouses galore.

A ban awarded to Norwegian cross-country skier Therese Johaug has prompted criticism of NADO impartiality ©Getty Images
A ban awarded to Norwegian cross-country skier Therese Johaug has prompted criticism of NADO impartiality ©Getty Images

How, then, will the independent testing system work?

Clearly, there are key structural and financial issues which are yet to be ironed out. But the broad consensus seems to be more for a new Independent Testing Agency (ITA).

This would sit separately from WADA and would thus presumably require its own governing Board and President. We have been told that 22 of the 28 Summer Olympic International Federations are interested in such a unit. I am not certain of the identity of the other six, but it seems likely that athletics, cycling, swimming and tennis are among them. 

Their opposition is thought to be either because they have existing independent systems within their Federations, like with the International Cycling Union, or because they would prefer waiting to see how the ITA works before committing either way.

An ASOIF-commissioned report produced last year found that six unspecified sports, likely to be the same six mentioned above, contributed to $18.26 million (£14.50 million/€16.82 million) of the total $22.84 million (£18.12 million/€21.04 million) spending on anti-doping. Around 80 per cent, then, in simpler language.

So, in theory, the remaining collective spend of $4.58 million (£3.62 million/€3.22 million) would be taken out of the International Federations budget and put into the ITA pool. The IOC would then provide a certain starting lump sum, perhaps matching this amount, to "top it up". The SportAccord-organised Doping Free Sport Unit is also likely to be incorporated. Clearly, though, much more money would be needed if NADO-related testing was ever integrated.

In theory, International Federations would provide intelligence about their particular sport, but would have no direct role beyond that. Presumably, many of the same anti-doping staff currently employed by International Federations could shift to a role in the ITA.

You could argue that this could leave lingering conflicts of interests. But to not do this would forfeit much-needed experience on the nuances of drugs testing within specific sports. It would eradicate the current system where anti-doping officials often have other agendas within their IF. In at least one, for instance, the anti-doping officer is also deputy secretary general so answers directly to the secretary general or President. They would thus be far more susceptible to conflicting allegiances than if they were operating in the ITA…

NADO's have not completely dismissed the ITA idea. But many think it would be better to invest money in solving cracks in the existing system rather than by starting again from scratch. A compromise, they say, would also be a limited ITA which works with willing International Federations but sits alongside NADO testing. For logistical reasons, this probably appears the most likely approach.

An Independent Testing Agency could administer testing while CAS could play a sanctioning role ©Getty Images
An Independent Testing Agency could administer testing while CAS could play a sanctioning role ©Getty Images

And what of sanctioning? There are two elements here: acting against those who fail tests and acting against organisations falling foul of the World Anti-Doping Code.

The IOC proposal is for CAS to take direct control over both areas.

On doping cases, a special panel could be convened to adjudicate first or second instance cases. This would effectively build on the system used at Rio 2016 and is due to be repeated in Pyeongchang next year.

There are several problems here. One relates to the size of CAS. At the moment it deals with 600 cases, but, if it assumed total responsibility, it would have to tackle double, treble or even quadruple this number. And it is not just a financial challenge but a logistical one as well.

At present, CAS takes about three months to reach a verdict on a particular case.

I am told that each one is personally signed off by the organisation’s secretary general Matthieu Reeb. If true, this is not just a case of executive-level influence but a clearly inefficient system. It would fit with the hazy way in which cases are currently communicated. Another question concerns the added costs for athletes in travelling to Lausanne and dealing with CAS rather than a national tribunal.

But the most talked about challenge concerns how CAS President John Coates is also an IOC vice-president. The same Coates who is currently facing a domestic challenge at the Australian Olympic Committee and who is also involved in the Working Group deliberating a joint 2024 and 2028 Olympic awarding. This is clearly a conflict of interest and must be eradicated, whatever the IOC say about a separation of powers.

With compliance, I think the problem is not so much who takes the decision but improving the clarity of the process. WADA have prioritised drawing up a graded list of escalating sanctions, beginning with warnings and fines rather than suspensions. This must be fully open, public and consistently applied, otherwise political interests will dominate again.

Take the situation last year with the International Boxing Association (AIBA) after it emerged they carried out one out-of-competition drugs test across the whole of 2015 and 2016. Why did WADA not declare them non-compliant? Why did it take a journalist to make this public? And what, if any, punishment did AIBA face? 

The IOC like talking about transparency and openness. But, under Thomas Bach, they often prefer the grey flexibility of an unclear rule. I do emphasise with their concerns about devolving power to WADA, given how they also have political agendas, but giving power to CAS in its current shape will also raise concerns.

This is one of many areas where plenty of deals and discussions remain to be ironed out. Complete solutions are now not expected until 2019.

The old Winston Churchill quote springs to mind. "Democracy is the worst form of Government, except for all the others." No system is perfect. But, on balance, the tentative proposals currently being discussed are probably as good as we are going to get. 

It might even get sorted before Britain is fully out of the European Union.