suspicion of cover-up

Meraf Bahta during the European Championships in Berlin 2018

track and field

suspicion of cover-up

Swedish runner Meraf Bahta has escaped sanctions in her home country in the first instance. Her case had led to a scandal at the European Championships in Berlin. A victim of Sweden’s arbitrary way of dealing with the case is a German. Shea Westhoff explores.

The story started off on the wrong foot, and, as it continues, it doesn't get any better. On 4th January 2019, the Swedish Doping Committee decided not to sanction athlete Meraf Bahta with an anti-doping rule violation. However, the Swedes still refuse to offer an official explanation as to why. All the circumstances of the affair leave more questions than answers.

For Bahta it was a good day when she was cleared; as it was for many people in Sweden. The middle and long-distance runner is a star there. She was nominated last year as Sportswoman of the Year. Yet elsewhere the acquittal raises eyebrows - especially in Germany. Bahta's case became public before the start of the European Athletics Championships in Berlin in 2018. It wasn't the federation themselves that made the case public, but the Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet. Bahta won bronze over 10,000 metres, just ahead of the German Alina Reh, who finished fourth. All this even though the Swede’s right to compete had been under threat prior to the race.

Bahta was accused of missing two doping tests over a period of twelve months, and – in another instance – of having breached her obligation to register her whereabouts. Simply, three times within a year, inspectors were prevented from testing Bahta for banned substances. The last violation occurred in May 2018. Already at the European Championships, experts wondered why the Swedes took so much time to resolve the issue. After all it was necessary to protect the integrity of the competition. What is striking is that the decision-making process in the Bahta case is lengthy, and there is a lack of transparency about the underlying arguments that led to the decisions.

Calls for one-year suspension

Meraf Bahta wins the Bronze medal at the European Championships in Berlin 2018

Controversial already last summer: Meraf Bahta celebrates the bronze medal at the European Championships in Berlin 2018

In terms of sports law, Bahta's start to the European Championships is perfectly legal: a suspension is not mandatory when one fails to report their whereabouts, German NADA representative Lars Mortsiefer told the ARD doping editorial office. The responsible disciplinary body or the anti-doping organisation would then have to weigh up what lay in the foreground: the need for protection of the competition or the athlete.

"Not guilty" was the final verdict of the Doping Committee at the beginning of the year - after it had assessed two months of evidence. But that's not a long time, says committee chair Ake Thimfors: "We got the case, then everyone had to look through the material, we had to set up a meeting for all committee members and work out a verdict," he says. The athlete shall get away with it.

The Swedish Anti-Doping Agency "Doping Commissions" had demanded a one-year suspension of Bahtas. Now the commission has appealed to the Swedish Sports Council, the last Board of Appeal. Their decision is expected within the next three weeks. During this time, according to the rules and regulations of the sports federation - similar to Germany’s DOSB in its function - none of the parties may comment on the case in order to ensure that the athlete does not suffer public damage before the verdict.

Quite simply you can't give the public any justification for the acquittal, Thimfors also says: "I can't say anything about the Meraf Bahta case, otherwise I would ignore the association's rules". There will be only one reason for justifying the acquittal: If Bahta loses before the Sports Council. But if she also wins this trial, she has the right to continue to lay the cloak of silence over her three offences. No one at the Swedish Sports Federation seems to mind that stoic silence sometimes seems like cover-up. Do they simply not want to give away a medal at any price?


Doubts about independence

The branches of the association's structure seem at least as questionable as the silence: each of the chambers operating in the Bahta case is part of the Swedish Sports Federation - the association whose athletes are to be controlled. The Swedish Anti-Doping Agency, for example, sits in the same building as the sports federation. The doping committee that delivers the verdict is, in turn, elected by representatives of the association.

Ake Andrén-Sandberg is chairman of the Swedish Anti-Doping Agency. He emphasises the independence of the chambers to the ARD doping editorial office: "Our commission investigates doping cases, the decisions are taken by the doping committee. Never by us".

For about ten years now, the question of how independent the doping authority is has been regularly raised in Sweden. And so, according to Andrén-Sandberg, their employees visited their colleagues in Finland, Norway and soon also in Denmark. Andrén-Sandberg sums up his findings from these educational trips pragmatically: "Perhaps their institutions are organised differently, but in reality there is no difference between them and us". However, he does not want to claim that things are going perfectly in Sweden.

Andrén-Sandberg, too, has to remain silent about the concrete reasons why he and his Anti-Doping Agency consider it appropriate to punish Bahta. But that's how much he lets himself be told: he's torn. "The present case is intended to show that every athlete has rules to follow," he says. On the other hand, for the athlete Bahta's sake, he is glad she was acquitted.

Stand: 04.02.2019, 18:41