Opinion 12th August 2016

Punishing athletes for the mistakes of sport’s administrators

Next week, the skirmishes over doping among athletes at the Rio Olympics will shift from the pool to the track. But we can count on the overarching narrative to stay the same: good athlete versus evil athlete. Instead of American swimmer Lily King (in the role of good) wagging her finger defiantly at her Russian competitor, Yulia Efimova (in the role of evil), it will be American sprinter Justin Gatlin assuming the role of bad guy, with Jamaica’s Usain Bolt playing the hero.

Personalities, and conflict among them in and out of competition, make up much of what make the Olympics so compelling. But when we view issues of performance-enhancing drugs through the lens of individual athletes we lose sight of the deeper problems faced by sport. Pitting athlete vs. athlete makes sense for sporting competition, but when pitted against each other as a doping morality play, our attention is deflected from the sports officials who are ultimately to blame for the doping crisis facing modern sport.

Even though the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) were informed years ago of alleged systemic doping in Russia sport, it took several high-profile media reports to force them to act. And when they did finally act, the resulting mishmash of ad hoc rules was widely criticised and challenged.

In the aftermath of this policy wreckage, sports administrators, including IOC President Thomas Bach and Sebastian Coe, President of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), have focused attention on athletes who dope, rather than the institutions and their leader who created this mess in the first place. Bach has called for lifetime bans from the Olympics for any athlete who has ever served a doping suspension.

Most everyone has taken the bait, including Olympic athletes, media commentators and even spectators in Rio, who loudly boo most any Russian athlete. We’ve been bamboozled by sports officials. It is King, Efimova, Gatlin and Bolt – athletes who doped and those who did not – who together are all victims of the poor governance of sports bodies.

A focus on the sinning athlete as the root of evil in sport is more than just misdirection by sports administrators. It is actually built into the fabric of anti-doping regulations. The World Anti-Doping Code, the rules that regulate doping in the Olympics and other international sport includes more than 5,000 words of excruciating detail on how to punish athletes who are caught taking prohibited substances. But the WADA Code is essentially silent on what should be done when sport administrators, governing bodies or governments break the rules.

That’s probably understandable. To paraphrase a detective from the celebrated US television series The Wire, if you follow drugs then you are going to get drug cheats, but if you go after administrators and organisations, watch out, because that can take you to some uncomfortable places.

For instance, one of the Russian sports administrators identified by WADA’s investigation into the Russian doping scandal as being allegedly complicit in the systemic doping of athletes is Vitaly Mutko, Russia’s Minister of Sport. Mutko also happens to be in charge of delivering the world’s next great sports extravaganza, the 2018 FIFA World Cup, which is to be held in Russia. Mutko also serves on the top committee of FIFA, the scandal-plagued body that oversees the World Cup.

We can imagine the line of thinking that must have gone through IOC President Bach’s head: ‘If the Russian government is indeed behind systematic doping of its athletes, and if some of the same Russian officials are in charge of the 2018 World Cup, and if real sanctions are applied then the viability of the 2018 World Cup might be at stake … gulp … Hey, everyone, I propose banning athletes who previously doped from the Olympics!’

From this perspective, athletes like Yulia Efimova are little more than pawns in a much larger game.

Efforts to exclude athletes from the Olympics who previous broke doping rules have repeatedly failed. In 2008, the IOC implemented such a rule, called the ‘Osaka Rule’ after the venue where it was first announced. The US Olympic Committee (USOC) challenged the rule on behalf of sprinter LaShawn Merritt, who was suspended for 21 months for taking a banned substance. Merritt claimed it was all an innocent mistake, due to his failure to read the fine print on an over-the-counter ‘male enhancement product’.

Whether Merritt was a cheater or just foolish proved irrelevant, as the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) struck down the Osaka rule in 2011, arguing that it constituted a form of ‘double jeopardy’ – punishing an athlete twice for the same violation. The CAS upheld that decision earlier this month in the cases of Efimova and several other Russian athletes, leading to their ability to participate in the 2016 Rio Games.

It is not just Russians such as Efimova who are participating in Rio with a past doping violation on their resumé. A Norwegian newspaper has identified more than 100 athletes from countries other than Russia who are participating in Rio with a previous drug ban. All of these athletes are in Rio based on following the rules of sport, yet some – including the IOC’s Bach and IAAF’s Coe – seem to prefer vigilante justice.

The most notable sprinter who previously served a doping suspension (two actually) is Justin Gatlin*, who is looking to unseat Usain Bolt for the title of world’s fastest runner. At last year’s World Track and Field Championships, Gatlin was edged at the 100m finish line by the smallest of margins, 0.01 seconds, despite having run the five fastest times at that distance in 2015. Bolt’s slim victory over the ‘drugs cheat’ prompted an enthusiastic BBC commenter to gush that, “He’s saved his title, he’s saved his reputation – he may have even saved his sport”.

In the year since Bolt’s slim victory, the sordid revelations about Russia’s alleged state-sponsored doping scheme show that saving track and field is going to take a lot more than a win by an athletic hero over an unpopular competitor. Yet, the overly-simplistic morality tale continues its overarching narrative concerning doping in the Rio Olympics. For instance, Vox, a US media outlet that purports to explain the world’s complexity, tells us that Efimova’s races in the pool were ‘a battle between good and evil, the fair and unfair, the clean and the cheaters’. Put that way, who wants to be on the side of the evil, unfair cheaters?

A more accurate, if less compelling, narrative is that many athletes who dope are themselves victims of poor governance among sports bodies. Before the IAAF banned 68 Russian athletes from the Rio Olympics, the organisation was on the hot seat over allegations that its top ranking officials, including its President, were involved in a scheme to extort athletes for cash to cover up positive doping tests. One of the athletes who blew the whistle on the corruption, Yulia Stepanova, was singled out by the IOC to be banned from the Rio Olympics. The penalty for whistleblowing, it turns out, is far more severe than for doping.

If the Olympics are to overcome the crisis of legitimacy that doping poses to sport, then our attention needs to move beyond the morality tale of good versus evil athletes and onto poorly governed sports organisations. It is in the best interests of athletes to lead this charge, to resist being pulled into media-fuelled, jingoistic battles of good versus evil and, instead, to join together demanding good governance from the organisations that rule sport.

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