WADA’s credibility at stake

The key decision that divides the world of sports: Russia’s compliance with the World Anti-Doping Code.

Meeting in Seychelles

WADA’s credibility at stake

Von Nick Butler

A recommendation for the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) to restore the compliance of the Russian Anti-Doping Agency (RUSADA) at an Executive Committee meeting here in Seychelles tomorrow has prompted a  barrage of criticism from around the world. Convincing sceptics that they have not sacrificed clean sports for the sake of politics marks the biggest test in their 19-year history.

Location can matter when judging the sincerity of decisions in sports politics. 

When the International Olympic Committee (IOC) approved its Agenda 2020 reform process at an extraordinary meeting in December 2014, they chose to do so within touching distance of Ferrari, McLaren and Rolls Royce showrooms in the plush surroundings of the Monte Carlo shoreline. It was therefore hard to treat this as the dawn of a more modest organisation and changes proposed were largely dismissed as window dressing rather than a genuine shift.

WADA will claim that Seychelles was chosen as host for tomorrow's meeting long before they knew it would mark a defining chapter in the Russian doping saga. The choice of such a far-flung location has conveniently avoided a heavy media presence and, even if this was just a happy coincidence, a setting more fitting for a spy novel than a business meeting neatly encapsulates an issue which has become about far than simple sport.

The meeting is not only a vital step in assessing how the organisation responds to its toughest single crisis so far; but WADA's entire reputation as a credible global regulator who puts clean sport before anything else is at stake.

Letter from Russian Sports Minister

Have they betrayed those instincts or are they making the best move possible with the hand they have been dealt?

RUSADA compliance with the World Anti-Doping Code has been repeatedly rejected on the same two grounds: acceptance of the McLaren Report, which concluded that an "institutional" doping programme was in operation, and the opening-up of the Moscow Laboratory to assess evidence which is still available.

A belated letter from Russian Sports Minister Pavel Kolobkov on September 13 did not do either.

It accepted the "decision of the IOC (International Olympic Committee) Executive Board" in December that was made "on the findings of the [IOC-commissioned] Schmid Report. This was essentially a watered-down version of Richard McLaren's more detailed appraisal, and it concluded that the Russian Sports Ministry bore some responsibility for doping even if they were not, as an organisation, fully complicit. More significantly, Kolobkov said that "after the reinstatement of RUSADA and the consent of the Russian Investigative Committee"...they will "provide as soon as possible to an independent expert, agreeable to WADA and the Investigative Committee, the access to the analytical equipment to retrieve...an authentic copy of the LIMS (Laboratory Information Management System) data and of the raw analytical data".

To many, it did not take much analysis to dismiss this latter promise as a bluff which will never be realised.

WADA's Compliance Review Committee (CRC) met the following day and, while admitting that Kolobkov's words "falls short of what is required", they recommended that Russia be reinstated, "subject strictly" to the Moscow Lab access being granted within at least six months, and assistance being offered by Russian authorities to "procure any consequent re-testing of samples based on data found" within another six months.

"Grounded in pragmatism"

A recommendation of non-compliance would be given once again if these criteria are not met. In theory, this sounds reasonable. In reality, the complex levers of sports politics makes it hard to see this ever happening.

A WADA statement admitting the proposal was a "nuanced interpretation"..."grounded in pragmatism" rather than sticking strictly to the roadmap they had all agreed to only added fuel to the fire. A series of leaked documents also presented a sense of secrecy and WADA's claim that the belated publishing of all correspondence represented "full transparency" was laughable.

Key ally heading WADA: Craig Reedie of Great Britain

Key ally heading WADA: Craig Reedie of Great Britain

Beckie Scott, the respected chair of the WADA Athletes' Committee who was beaten by Russian athletes who later failed drug tests in her previous career as a cross-country skier, resigned from her CRC position. Norwegian Sports Minister and WADA vice-president Linda Helleland has also pledged to vote against the proposal and dozens of other organisations have criticised the sudden and seemingly sporadic nature of the decision. Russian officials are queuing up to respond jubilantly in the local media and there is already talk of bids for fresh sporting events.

The WADA Compliance Review Committee chaired by British lawyer Jonathan Taylor, who has repeatedly pressed a hardline stance in the past, take a different view. They claim that the difference between the Schmid and McLaren Reports is purely a semantic one, a factually true point although this does not stop it being a climbdown.

Shady politics

They correctly see the second laboratory criteria as far more important. In May, the Executive Committee came minutes away from a vote there and then to decide on Russian compliance. Russia would have therefore been welcomed back with no outstanding criteria - therefore no further punishment - and this outcome could still materialise, either in Seychelles or at a future meeting.

As it is, Russia must now produce the "raw authentic data", a document often stretching to over 50 pages for each case. The LIMS Database is far briefer and is not considered enough to prosecute any cases by itself, and cannot even add much legal weight to supplement other evidence. The "raw authentic data", on the other hand, should be enough to prove or disprove up to 10,000 LIMS cases.

No official estimate has been given, but their has been talk of hundreds, maybe thousands, of convictions for a multitude of substances across numerous sports. If true, this would be staggering and a huge success.

This is the theory. In practice, reasoned legal arguments can often be outmanoevered in the rough and tumble of shady politics.

Does Russia have any intention of helping? I doubt it. It will be hard for them to fake "clean" results, due to WADA's knowledge of the LIMS database already, but is the evidence even still there? The truth is that nobody at WADA knows the answer to this.

No binding power

Many people have pointed out how the Kolobkov letter was not written on official notepaper with the Sports Ministerial seal. This seems an arcane point, but what if Kolobkov loses his position, as many believe will happen soon? His replacement could claim that the letter was the word of an individual rather than a Sports Minister and it would therefore wield no binding power. I am told WADA have now received official documentation, but this was not published.

And will the Investigative Committee veto him anyway? Their investigation has so far largely appeared a tactic to stall other inquiries with the primary objective of puncturing the reputation of ex-Moscow Laboratory director turned whistleblower Grigory Rodchenkov.

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What will happen if Russia does not play ball? The CRC would recommend non-compliance again and WADA director general Olivier Niggli insisted to ARD today that the WADA leadership would push for this. Even if they know the "raw analytical data does not exist? "There are many steps we could take, including and beyond non-compliance," Niggli added, with less certainty.

But do the majority of members on the Executive Committee really care about whether Russia means what it says, or do they just want to have compliance returned and then draw a line under the whole thing? The IOC, who control the five sports movement representatives, have shown an alarming desire to have Russia returned ever since they lifted their own suspension just three days after the Closing Ceremony of the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics.

IOC President Thomas Bach has a track record of putting politics before ideological decisions on doping. I suspect he will be rather enjoying watching WADA tear itself apart this week given his dissatisfaction with any sporting body that doesn't automatically follow his lead.

Probably more resignations

If the Executive Committee really cares about clean sport, they should grant the CRC the automatic power to reintroduce non-compliance if it deems Russia not to have met its promises.

This would remove the politics from the process and leave the decision to the experts, and is a key factor which should be discussed in Seychelles. It will almost certainly not happen, however, because sports politicians do not like to relinquish power. Experts also have a funny tendency to take decisions on merit rather than on political grounds.

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An ignored CRC recommendation would probably result in more resignations but this would only lead to more "politically beneficial" replacements and thus even less credibility.

It is possible, though unlikely given how much of a public relations disaster it will be, that the WADA Executive Committee will vote for Russian recompliance without approving the CRC criteria. This would be a complete and unequivocal disaster for clean sport and a final sign that the politicians do not care at all.

Positive in Pyeongchang: Russian Curler Alexander Krushelnitskiy

Positive in Pyeongchang: Russian Curler Alexander Krushelnitskiy

Another factor concerns the nature of the "independent expert" who inspects the Moscow Laboratory.

Nobody is really "independent" in sport. They need somebody who has the necessary expertise to understand the data and this immediately reduces the candidates to a gaggle of laboratory experts, many of whom are also involved in other bodies and have already expressed views on Russia. Could the Russians therefore block every option to delay the process? A figure involved in a company who manufactures anti-doping equipment would appear the logical choice.

The WADA decision will not be easy. They are stuck between the rock of IOC pressure and the hard place of vociferous anti-doping critics.

I am inclined to conclude that their decision is less morally bankrupt than many believe. This does not mean it will work is even necessarily the right choice, however, and tomorrow will be a huge test for WADA if its credibility is to remain.

Stand: 19.09.2018, 22:14