15th February 2019

Global Athlete: scepticism over motives may be unfounded

On 13 February, a new, international, athlete-led movement named ‘Global Athlete’ launched. The name of the movement was similar to the World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA) Global Athlete Forum; its Director General is former WADA Deputy Director General Rob Koehler; it was promoted by WADA’s former Communications Manager Ben Nichols; and is funded by FairSport, which states on its internet site that it ‘works closely’ with WADA, the International Olympic Committee (IOC), UK Anti-Doping (UKAD) and the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA).

As such, some scepticism about the organisation’s motives was perhaps understandable. ‘There are many unanswered questions about universality, accountability and funding’, read a statement from the IOC Athletes Commission (see below). ‘It’s disappointing that this group seems to believe that none of us care about athletes and none of us do a good job for athletes if we are part of the Olympic Movement. We don’t believe that as athletes we should differentiate ourselves into West vs East, or rich vs poor. When we walk on to the field of play we do not judge each other on where we come from or what religion we are, so why would be more effective only if we come from one specific part of the globe, or only listen to one specific view. The IOC Athletes representatives are democratically elected by their peers from all 206 National Olympic Committees. Our many differences and our many different views make us stronger together.’

A WADA spokesperson said that WADA management knew nothing about the development of Global Athlete in advance. The spokesperson echoed a previous WADA statement indicating that it cannot offer athletes a greater representation on its Executive Committee until athletes clarify how their representatives are elected, also echoing the IOC Athletes Commission statement above. 

‘The athlete voice is very important to WADA and WADA continues to strengthen the ways in which the athlete voice is heard within its governance structure’, read an emailed statement. ‘In November 2018, the Agency’s Foundation Board approved a series of governance reforms that include one seat at a minimum for athlete representation on all Standing Committees, which will take effect in 2020. As regards additional athlete representation on WADA’s Executive Committee, the Board agreed with the Governance Working Group’s recommendation that the voice of the athletes should be strengthened beyond the existing means when there is a mechanism to ensure sufficient representation. Once the athletes are able to confirm exactly how and by what means they are represented, as well as how their representatives are selected, then an open discussion will be held to determine at which existing and/or new levels within WADA, athlete representation could be strengthened.

‘In response, WADA’s Athlete Committee has taken the initiative to create a working group to look at the global representation of athletes worldwide. WADA Management has committed to supporting this group by commissioning governance experts as needed.’

Scepticism may be unfounded

However, the circumstances around Global Athlete’s launch illustrate why such scepticism may be unfounded. Global Athlete is open to anyone to join (you can sign up on its website); its funders have absolutely no input into decision making; and the involvement of two ex-WADA staff owes more to coincidence than conspiracy.

Ben Nichols, WADA’s former Director of Communications, resigned from the Agency in May to spend more time with his family, and opened his own communications agency in October last year. He has also worked with the Commonwealth Games Federation (CGF). Rob Koehler resigned from WADA in August last year for ‘personal reasons’. He is keen to focus on his reasons for accepting a role at Global Athlete rather than his reasons for resigning from WADA.

“One of the most satisfying positions I had with WADA was over the last two years, when I undertook oversight of the WADA Athlete Committee”, he outlined. “They are a group of athletes that were trailblazers who were never afraid to give their opinions and put out statements that disagreed with WADA. 

“I think that they were way beyond their years in having a voice that was loud and clear. They kept me honest and accountable and inspired me to think that everything we should be doing should have the athletes in mind.

“I’ve severed my ties with WADA, and my interest is to stand with and help the athletes. Part of the principle of taking this job on was that whilst FairSport is funding the organisation, I told them that their funding cannot be attached to decision making. The decision making for this organisation has to be driven by the athletes, because otherwise you will just be like every other organisation.

“I am thrilled that FairSport agreed to this, because otherwise I wouldn’t have taken the job, and if it does change, I will leave the job.”

Callum Skinner, Great Britain’s Olympic track cycling Champion, has taken on the role of Athlete Lead for Global Athlete, tasked with getting athletes involved with the organisation. “The statement from the IOC Athletes Commission seems to be slightly misinformed”, he said. “They are welcome to join us as much as anyone else. We don’t feel that we’re stepping on their toes, because athletes are part of the Olympic movement. But we’re trying to represent athletes from all sports, not just ones that have been to the Games. 

“But also, let’s be realistic about the ties that they have to the IOC. They are not going to be truly independent. But we are quite happy to collaborate with the IOC and whoever else to make sport a better place.”

Aims and next steps

Koehler outlines that the first objective will be to put together what he calls a ‘mobilisation strategy’ in order to get athletes interested and on board. “Athletes have to want to be a part of it and see the value in it”, he explains. “Our first objective is to spend time in listening to them, understand what their needs are, and then work with them to come up with ways in which to resolve their issues. 

“We are also aligning ourselves with some independent athlete commissions that have been set up. One is AthletesCAN, which is one of the first independent athlete commissions established.” Kohler has also been in contact with the World Players Association (WPA), which has launched a Universal Declaration of Player Rights and has put reform proposals to WADA. The WPA has also been a vocal critic of the IOC Athletes’ Declaration on human rights.

“It is too early to determine where we will end up”, explains Koehler. “There is going to be advocacy and, moving forward, how much further we go down the road to really standing up for athlete rights and mobilising the athletes to take a stand when their rights are not being upheld remains to be seen. People can see this as a threat, but you can only grow sport, make it a business and make it more attractive to people by engaging with the athletes. If there is meaningful engagement, you’ll get more support from sponsors and the public. This should be seen as a positive way to grow sport in the future.”

An athlete led movement

Other athletes involved with Global Athlete include Ali Jawad, the British Paralympic powerlifter who was the driving force behind Athletes for Clean Sport, which developed The Alternative – a series of reform proposals for WADA. Skinner was also involved with Athletes for Clean Sport, which provided the bedrock for Global Athletes. Today, Global Athlete announced the involvement of Nordic cross country skier Noah Hoffman.

Skinner outlined that he saw Athletes for Clean Sport as a single issue organisation attempting to change WADA’s governance on the back of athlete dissatisfaction at how it dealt with the Russian State’s involvement with doping Russian athletes. He says that Global Athlete has a wider reach.

“We had unprecedented mobilisation of athletes behind a single issue, that being the Russian doping scandal, and WADA’s handling of that case”, he explained. “Obviously, we didn’t get the result that a lot of British athletes wanted during that mobilisation, but from a personal point of view, I thought it would be a bit of a shame that having managed to create such a strong voice, and it would be allowed to fade away.

“There are plenty of athlete issues in sport that need attention, whether that be commercial rights, athlete welfare or anti-doping. Global Athlete, from a British point of view, came around at just the right time, in order to capitalise on that mobilisation.”

As the coordinated statements from the IOC Athletes Commission and WADA above outline, WADA currently does not offer athletes a seat in the decision making process. This means that decisions that affect the lives of athletes in many ways are made without athlete input into that process, argues Skinner. 

“I was speaking with WADA about the Russia situation”, continues Skinner. “Quite often, the argument is that they are doing what is best for their stakeholders. I asked them, who are your stakeholders? They mention 50% governments and 50% the IOC [Governments negotiate on funding WADA, and the IOC match that amount]. For me, there is a fundamental misunderstanding of what a stakeholder is – there’s a key element missing! 

“The athletes. They are the ones with most to lose. For an organisation such as WADA to claim that their stakeholders are the governments and the IOC, to me just felt wrong.”

Inequity in sporting governance

For Skinner, this inequity in sports governance is illustrated by the fact that despite the modernisation and commercialisation of sport into a legitimate career, its rules have failed to keep pace. Rules 40 and 50 of the IOC Charter provides the IOC with complete control over its commercial rights at the Olympic Games, but is also used to prevent athletes from undermining the value of those rights by promoting their own sponsors for the duration of the Olympics. 

“Sport has become a full time profession for a lot of people”, explains Skinner. “We’ve grown away from the amateur status that sport used to be. I wouldn’t want to take money away from the IOC. However the restrictions could be softened. For example, I have a small surveying company that has supported me throughout my career, from when I was young. When I competed at the Games, I wasn’t permitted to Tweet about them before, during, or after the Games. 

“Relaxing the rules on the media blackout would cost them nothing. It would also enable athletes to give back to the people that support us, which is an important thing to do. Athletes also explore different revenue streams. A lot of athletes write blogs – for example, I feature quite heavily on my team mate Phil Hines’s blog, and I produced my own during the 2018 Commonwealth Games. 

“Yet you are prohibited from making any kind of content within the Olympic Village or the Competition Area venue, which makes this very difficult. It’s about a little bit of modernisation – a little bit of give and take.”

However, WADA’s handling of the situation in Russia still plays heavily on Skinner’s mind. He appears still angry about the way in which it was handled. 

“I have been one of the more outspoken athletes when it came to the whole RUSADA scandal”, he admits. “I felt disenfranchised and patronised by the governance and leadership at WADA and the IOC. And whether you’re for the reinstatement of RUSADA or against it, your voice as an athlete – one of the most vulnerable stakeholders in the sporting movement – should be taken seriously. It should be cherished instead of treated with disdain.”

It became clear that athletes felt that WADA should not have reinstated RUSADA until Russia acknowledged the involvement of the State in doping athletes. Russia has yet to do this. RUSADA was reinstated after Russia accepted an IOC decision based on the IOC’s Schmid Report. The International Paralympic Committee’s (IPC) Taskforce recently said that this was not the same as accepting the conclusions of the McLaren Report, which was WADA’s condition for reinstatement. ‘There was a strong sentiment that the Russian acknowledgement of the IOC decision based on the Schmid Report was enough, and we could not hold out for more’, said Jonathan Taylor, Chair of WADA’s Compliance Review Committee (CRC).

Skinner disagrees, and feels that Russia has been treated differently because of its power and influence. “Russia is one of the major sports countries in the world”, WADA’s President Sir Craig Reedie told CNN in November. “In many ways, it is the biggest sports country in the world. WADA has been unlucky in that the first time it had a real challenge to compliance, it happened to be the biggest country in the world. It might have been easier for us to cut our teeth on a less significant example.”

Skinner sees this as proof that as far as WADA is concerned, the playing field is not level [incidentally, the playing field in sport is never level, and sports governing bodies need to stop claiming that it is]. The allegation is that if, as a country, you have sporting power, influence and finance, then you can expect to be treated more leniently by WADA. 

“I think that everyone can take issue with this, because what he’s saying is that if you’re a wealthier, more powerful, affluent nation, then you’re going to be treated with compromise, whereas if you’re less influential and poor, you’re going to have the book thrown at you”, he states. “That tells you all you need to know about the politics of the anti-doping system and it has scope to improve.”

Reedie would probably argue that his comments merely served to illustrate that because of Russia’s size, power and resources, it would be harder to deal with than a smaller country, as we have seen play out. Russia has fought WADA every step of the way. But it is easy to see how his comments might be viewed as how a bull might see a red rag.

However, Skinner is clear that Global Athletes is not about WADA or Russia. “We are trying to stay away from being a single issue organisation. On a very basic level, some of the changes we would like to see are more respect for the athlete voice. In the longer term, going forward, we want to try and get athletes a meaningful seat at the table. What we want to do is empower the athletes around the world, regardless of their opinion, and make them feel like global athletes in their own space, so that their voice can be heard and respected.”

Political stick

There are many political sticks that can be used to beat organisations. Although Global Athlete is funded by FairSport, Koehler has outlined that this doesn’t mean that FairSport has any say in its decisions, and if it does in the future, he will resign. Another political stick is Western bias, as raised by the IOC Athletes Commission. However, as Skinner points out, any athlete from any country or sport can sign up to Global Athlete.

It was perhaps inevitable that such an organisation would develop. Anyone involved in elite sport will tell you that the days in which a research assistant who runs in his spare time can go to the Olympics are long gone. Sport, at the elite level, is a full time job, sometimes a science, sometimes well paid, and sometimes not. In ‘Western’ countries, athletes tend to be better paid, which is why they are able to mobilise to support a cause to raise standards for other athletes worldwide.

WADA has struggled to understand the anger over its decisions on RUSADA. Athletes are subject to strict liability under the World Anti-Doping Code, which requires them to explain any prohibited substance in their sample. At Tackling Doping in Sport 2013, the Athlete Ombudsman for the US Olympic Committee (USOC), John Ruger, said that between 40% and 60% of US doping cases are inadvertent – i.e. non-intentional. 

There is nothing to indicate that the situation has changed. Athletes who didn’t intend to cheat are still being sanctioned as ‘doping cheats’, as countless cases illustrate (Justin Gatlin, Gordon Gilbert and Claudia Pechstein are extreme examples).

Yet when dealing with Russia, WADA has been prepared to compromise and change. This has not gone unnoticed by athletes who, in addition, have realised that their views on whether Russia has met WADA’s conditions are ignored or ridiculed. This perception of double standards is the reason for anger at WADA’s handling of the Russian situation.

Whether Global Athlete turns is more than a pressure group is subject to debate. Unlike Athletes for Clean Sport, it appears to have heavyweight backing through FairSport. In Rob Koehler, it has a former WADA executive who understands and respects the viewpoint of athletes. But the IOC and WADA operate in their own ‘Athlete Committee’ silos. Whether they will understand and respect athlete viewpoints raised by Global Athlete remains to be seen.

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