21st February 2020

It’s not a doping case – It never was:
 Sun Yang vs. WADA

The Court of Arbitration for Sport’s (CAS) Panel Arbitral Award following the World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA) appeal against Sun Yang and the international swimming federation (FINA) is expected almost any time now. During the 11 hour public hearing on 15 November Sun, currently China’s greatest Olympic swimmer, often struggled attempting to adequately and clearly express and defend himself during numerous incomplete English to Chinese and Chinese back to English translations, including numerous testimonial inaccuracies and misunderstandings, that nearly placed his efforts into jeopardy.

Sun Yang…

The impact and consequences of the Sun Yang court room translation disaster that unfolded globally are still reverberating. Most importantly, they revealed glaring discrepancies and substandard technology information systems, old or non-existent software and hardware ecosystems and a lack of many basic end-to-end cloud solutions, all of which affect Olympic athletes, endangering their careers. 

The decision by Sun Yang’s legal team, led by Ian Meakin, Counsel with Swiss law firm Bonnard Lawson, to move the CAS hearing from behind closed doors to an open public hearing was strategically astute. The fiasco damaged public trust in WADA and the CAS, calling into question the overall fairness and competence of anti-doping authorities, highlighting numerous failures and shortcomings in the anti-doping system that threaten innocent athletes and their careers. It also has pierced the veil of WADA’s purported care and protection for the athlete and athlete rights, demonstrating its concern for athletes may be more artificial than genuine. 

Translations and communications weren’t world-class 

The hearings were marred by questions of not understanding, then misunderstandings, pauses for translation verification, combined with concerns on specific points of law, along with not understanding critical points in the proceedings. All sides, including the judges, expressed frustration in technical and procedural terminology and with the answers in the overall communications. 

‘Incomplete and imprecise translations of the testimonies from Sun and the Chinese witnesses have marred what is only the second public CAS hearing in history’, reported Xinhuanet. ‘Even Sun’s lawyer Ian Meakin was frustrated and had to stop several times to correct the mistakes. 

‘As the hearing went on, Chinese fans watching live stream started to complain about the poor quality of the translation. “The translator skipped many details Sun Yang said and what she did translate was not correct”,’ said an internet user.’

CAS Post-Hearing Update 

The Court of Arbitration for Sport…

Nearly a full month after the public hearing, CAS issued a Post-Hearing Update, outlining that ‘some concerns were raised with respect to the quality of the interpretation of Mr. Yang’s testimony’. It added: ‘The parties are currently preparing an agreed-upon written transcript of the proceedings, including a full translation of Mr. Yang’s testimony which the Panel will work from when deliberating and preparing the Arbitral Award’.

Note that all parties are still working on an agreed-upon written transcript of the proceedings more than a month after the hearing. ‘In view of these circumstances, the Arbitral Award is not expected to be issued before mid-January 2020’, continued the Update.It is now approaching the end of February 2020 and we’re still waiting… 

The communications and translations, one-to-one translation meanings, the weight given to certain statements, the direct whole meanings of certain words or phrases and their accuracy are massively time consuming, even for expert teams of people. 

Strict liability and IT on shaky ground 

But this also again calls into question one of the crumbling pillars of the anti-doping regulatory system – ‘strict liability’. This means that each athlete is strictly liable for the substance found in his or her bodily specimen. However, whether anti-doping authorities can stretch this definition to cover a broad range of issues within anti-doping, including holding athletes responsible for substandard communications and predictable collection process fiascos while exonerating themselves, is highly debatable. 

The CAS case also brings us to another important, but neglected and underfunded pillar in Olympic sports and anti-doping; information technology (IT) and communications. This is where the silence from WADA and others, as certain athletes call other athletes “doping cheats”, turning one athlete against another athlete at global competitions, becomes revealing. 

T-Mobile data base migration issues 

Years earlier, at the Technology Area of T-Mobile’s global headquarters in Bonn, Germany, the Chief Technology Officer (CTO) stood with me talking with the head of Information Technology (IT), the head of Information Systems (IS) and another senior technology transition expert. We were discussing the software migration plan after acquiring five new mobile phone operators in five different European countries to reduce the total number of databases in the new companies from 15 down to three, by upgrading to T-Mobile’s database platforms in the next eight to 12 months. 

Telecommunication companies like T-Mobile (daughter company of parent Deutsche Telekom AG, which reported €87.9 billion in revenue for 2019) are talent pools of top IT, IS and software engineers and developers globally. They run all of the fibre optic, satellite, undersea cable, NATO defence, police, mobile, land line and internet infrastructure on the planet. 

Simply stated, the data migration issues in moving data from one database to another is not with millions, not even billions, but trillions and trillions of terabytes (104) and petabytes (105) of information from old legacy software systems and hardware onto the new databases from Oracle, SAP and IBM in new state-of-the-art data centres. The data migration included middleware, CRM (Customer Relationship Management) software, mobile, analytic and management dashboard systems based in the cloud that could all be controlled and monitored from the MSMC (Master Service Management Center in Bonn), where the entire mobile radio area 5G LTE network is managed in a building similar to the Kennedy Space Center. The main room has a five meter by seven meter HD screen with rows and rows of people, computers and monitors feeding live mobile, telecom, defence, satellite and ground fibre optic network data to teams of engineers 24/7, 365 days a year. 

National language silo issues 

Remembering a conversation while walking with Klaus V. (name withheld for security reasons) – we discussed the concerns of migrating old legacy systems, data in multiple computer languages and language silos (or SILs, the Surface Interface Languages; per country: Polish/Poland) to new database systems in new software languages. Sitting down after getting some coffee, Klaus reiterated, “This will take hundreds of hours of planning. We have 15 different databases. Terabytes of information. Language silos. Seven different languages… legacy hardware. If we don’t do the planning right… If we leave out any platforms or the smallest details on implementation/migration, (now counting on his fingers topic by topic) or miss anything in translation, information architecture, information flow streams, IS (Information Systems) or IT we’ll have downstream issues…” 

Olympic careers and ‘downstream issues’ 

‘Downstream issues’ while appearing almost innocuous, it is a key term. Often unknown and misunderstood, it is what the Olympic careers of many athletes such as Sun Yang are pivoting upon. 

Pushing back from his chair, looking off in the distance in a moment of deep concern, Klaus said; “If we miss anything we’ll have downstream issues and collateral damage. The transition has to be smooth. Seamless.” 

‘Collateral damage’. Another key term. 

Klaus was referring to the possible unintended consequences of incomplete communications in hand-shake data exchanges going from one system to another system, from one country to the next country, from one data silo or national language to the next silo or language; and with the information flow stream to implement the new changes directly impacting the person on the street, the customer. 

His concerns were that once the new systems were online, downstream issues might arise weeks, months or years from now. Certain customers, maybe only .005% of the total customer base, may not get new information on time, or certain languages may cause more implementation time delays than others. Data might be scrambled or lost, not getting to the customer correctly in one-to-one data exchange/translation issues, at worse affecting customer accounts. 

Meaning collateral damage could emerge. For example, hypothetically: mistakes in information not getting to customer accounts, might show up days, weeks, or months later as an account ‘not paid’, triggering false allegations, warnings, collections, court cases fighting over notification issues or other problems due to poor communications, bad or no translations, lack of robustly designed IT and IS systems in place, with customers wrongly accused, or a host of other issues. 

A success rate of ‘only’ 99.995% is not good enough. That means possibly 50,000 account mistakes and 50,000 possible court cases per 10 million customers. And we were looking at customer numbers much, much higher than that. Now getting back to Olympic athletes and anti-doping…

Both of Sun Yang’s anti-doping offences should never have happened. Because, barring a Chinese State doping program similar to that put in place by the Russians, they are not ‘doping cases’, but downstream issues, collateral damage from a lack of software and IT cloud based solutions. The athlete and many others like him should not be facing a lifetime ban from sports due to substandard information systems and a lack of IT cloud infrastructure, including identification verification software that now is threatening their Olympic careers. 

WADA had early warnings 

Detail from Play The Game 2011…

Nearly nine years ago, at the 2011 Play The Game conference in Köln, Germany, I spoke concerning the Claudia Pechstein case and the problems with her prosecution at CAS. I also explained and stated that WADA was firstly an ‘information organisation’. Just posting information such as the Prohibited List as a PDF was neglectful, and possibly detrimental to athlete careers. 

I explained to those present the importance of developing a communication plan with measurable analytics, driving down all data sets to the athletes in every country and measuring results. Despite numerous attempts, the concerns went ignored for years. 

“They need to understand strategic communications, communication forensics and operational mechanics”, I explained. “In my respectful opinion, these are strategic systemic vulnerabilities in anti-doping”.

Explaining to those who were willing to listen I said; “It is impossible for an athlete to use and obey the Prohibited List”. What many people don’t understand is that an athlete holding a bottle of medication cannot adequately check whether it contains any substances that feature on the Prohibited List. Many sections of the List mandate that ‘other substances with a similar chemical structure or similar biological effect(s)’ are also prohibited, in addition to the ones that feature on the List. Some sections also specify that ‘optical isomers’ of prohibited substances are also prohibited. This involves mirror images of the chemical structure of a compound, apparently, but athletes cannot be expected to know that. Factor in language issues, and you have a situation where athletes and their advisors cannot ascertain whether the medication they hold in their hand is prohibited. 

When one considers the strict liability to which athletes are subject, this situation is impossible. Young minors and older athletes are not doctors, or chemistry specialists. They cannot just read the Prohibited List or read PDFs as they were posted at that time. 

Athletes rely on their team doctors, who recommend their medications and monitor their health. In many countries, such doctors are considered anti-doping and Prohibited List experts. 

The operational mechanics 

Team doctors might be responsible for athletes in two, five or more sports. At the 2016 Rio Olympics, there were 28 sports. At the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympics, there were 15 different disciplines. 

So, as a team doctor, you may have 120 athletes taking maybe 30 different medications at any given time, with maybe two or three ingredients per medication. That equates to 60 to 90 different substances, or compounds. 

In many of these ‘doping cases’ the issue is data compliance 

Many team doctors do not know how to create, produce, update or use databases that are automatically updated featuring all of the athletes, the medications and ingredients they are taking. Using such a database, when anything is added to the Prohibited List a warning notification would appear in their email or communication system across all platforms alerting them that the medication they are permitting an athlete to use will now be on the Prohibited List come 1 January of that year. 

It was the same issue with meldonium. Study the email notifications sent to Maria Sharapova and others. 

To run the Prohibited List database featuring the banned substances, the total number of medications, in different languages, in different countries takes an IT team of doctors, chemists, translators, IT database managers and other software engineers. Itis not realistic to hold an athlete who is a minor, or any athlete responsible for that development and maintenance. However, under the Code, the athlete is held responsible for awareness of any additions to the Prohibited List, and for what goes into their system.

Not all countries have up to date databases or feature everything prohibited in sport in their own language. These technology issues are notification and compliance issues across iPhone, Android, email, WhatsApp, and other social media and communication platforms. 

That was the case with Sun Yang’s first offence. He was not notified by his team doctor about the change concerning the medication he was on. The medication was permitted, then later was prohibited ‘not-in-competition’. And after his three month ban by the Chinese Swimming Association (CSA), it has since been ‘downgraded to a lesser class after it was found not to be performance enhancing’. 

Sun Yang 

Sun Yang’s doctor was not up to date. If the anti-doping authorities had put  a basic global database in place for each athlete, per country, with their medications, doctors, and notification alerts, etc., Sun’s case wouldn’t have happened. 

Consequently, the athlete paid the price of not being ‘compliant’. If they had filled out a TUE (Therapeutic Use Exemption) on time, everything would have been fine. 

An up-to-date cloud based solution with mobile access for each athlete, containing any approved medications, alerting them to any new Prohibited List changes, would have prevented Sun’s first offence – his adverse analytical finding. Obviously, such a system would be very useful for other athletes also. 

Accredited? Medical professionals? 

Tracey Holmes conducted an insightful interview on her ABC News award winning podcast ‘The Ticket‘. Entitled ‘WADA v Sun Yang’, it featured guest Rob Koehler, the Managing Director of Global Athlete. Koehler is a savvy sport executive, championing athletes’ rights as well as anti-doping, and is fighting (and winning) on many other fronts regarding issues confronting Olympic athletes. Condensing the interview, some quotes are very notable and apply to the situation involving the doping control officer and her team in the Sun Yang case. 

“There were a couple of things of concern… I think we have issues when we look at anti-doping chaperones… even at the Olympic Games”, said Koehler. “I’ve overseen the running of the Pan American Games where we seem to focus a lot of attention on training doping control officers when actually… chaperones that notify the athletes, that witness the passing of the sample from most places received very little training. Sometimes at an event, they received training the day of the Games themselves, or the day of the event, and that is something that needs to be considered… It goes to the heart. One time at the Olympic Games you had doping control officers that used to pay their own way to go there. And even when it came to PyeongChang, I see them as officials and people who need to be there as experts… There is a whole revisit that needs to happen to look at who are the experts? What are the requirements? What are the minimum standards to carry out doping controls? I guess where the area is grey is when you have these independent sample collection authorities the ITA [International Testing Authority], the IDTM [International Doping Tests and Management], PWC [Professional Worldwide Controls]. Who has oversight of them and who runs compliance on them? There is something that has to be done to make sure everyone is accountable and working at the same standard and I think that is crucially important.” 

Holmes replied: “It struck me as odd when an athlete is held to 100% responsibility and this is make-or-break a career when you’re talking about a potential ban that could end a career and you’re one of the world’s top athletes, and yet on the other side the people that basically hold that future in their hands are just held to a guide and they don’t have to fulfil a benchmark… that seems to be a rather crucial anomaly doesn’t it? I can’t believe it hasn’t been addressed previously.” 

Holmes and Koehler are 100% right. The full interview can be found here. 

Software IDs and training 

Holmes touched on an important point. The entire software and hardware ecosystem of anti-doping that enables compliance is outdated or completely missing, and is nowhere near the world-class performance of the athletes. It is lacking in robust and basic mobile cloud solutions, with limited IT hardware and other software stack solutions and is virtually non-existent in some areas such as identification verification, training and other areas. 

No independent investigation has ever been done that I am aware of to determine IT, software and communications ‘system fitness’ from WADA to the athletes in training on the ground around the globe. None. 

With WADA and other NADOs as information organisations, has any communication plan or IT/software audit ever been conducted on how effective they are? In reaching the athletes? The doctors? No. None that we know of. 

They don’t even have an email solution for Prohibited List notifications for athletes and doctors that can confirm ‘Yes. I have received this’. That alone is simple, low cost technology. 

And it is remarkable that no Technology or Communications Committees exist in WADA, the NADOs or other federations. Technology and Communications cannot be ignored. This is 2020. 

The DCO and her team 

Concerning Sun Yang’s case before the CAS, and his problem with the DCO in this case, who was the same person he had an issue with a year earlier. If there was a problem a year earlier with the DCO, she should not have been permitted back to handle anything involving the athlete. Period. 

And now all the ID issues? All of the qualification issues? Is this about a smashed blood sample container? No. Not in my opinion. 

These basic downstream IT issues were predicted years ago 

A simple robust, world-class mobile ID system matched with an Intranet Log In featuring all DCO, DCA qualifications and training should have been in place long ago and would have prevented the entire scandal that Sun Yang and WADA now find themselves embroiled in. These are downstream issues. This is collateral damage. 

It’s not about ‘doping’. It’s about IT and a lack of robust basic software and hardware infrastructure that has harmed the careers of athletes. The software solutions to this issue costs less than a few thousand dollars a year and much of it is open source and free. 

This is not just about Sun Yang. This is an issue applicable to all athletes. 

Jack Ma to the rescue 

Jack Ma is the Founder and board member of the Alibaba Group that signed a sponsorship agreement with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) for cloud IT services through 2028. The press release reads: ‘IOC and Alibaba Group launch historic long-term partnership as Alibaba becomes worldwide Olympic Partner through 2028’.

It outlined that ‘Alibaba will become the official “Cloud Services” and “E-Commerce Platform Services” Partner as well as a Founding Partner of the Olympic Channel.This is a ground-breaking, innovative alliance, and will help drive efficiencies in the organization of the Olympic Games through 2028 while also supporting the global development of digital opportunities including the Olympic Channel.

‘It will provide:

• Best-in-class cloud computing infrastructure and cloud services to help the Olympic Games operate more efficiently, effectively and securely, including supporting big data analytics requirements; 
•The creation of a global e-commerce platform for Olympic stakeholders to engage and connect with fans seeking official Olympic licensed products manufactured by the Olympic parties’ official licensees, and selected sports products, on a worldwide basis; and
•Leveraging Alibaba’s leading digital media technologies and know-how to develop and customise the Olympic Channel for a Chinese audience.’

It should also be noted that if Jack Ma and any project manager from his IT team did a software stack audit of the anti-doping authorities from Montréal to the swimming pool in China they could come up with a solution in under two minutes. OK. One minute. Less than one minute. Jack Ma’s team will laugh. It’s that simple. The software already exists. So do the cloud services. 

Alibaba and the IOC have a great opportunity to demonstrate their synergy and how mutually beneficial their cooperation is by creating and developing the global anti-doping system database for national team doctors, athletes, IDTM personnel and others. BOOM! Done! It wouldn’t take much to solve the language silos, translations, chemistry, one-to-one designations, ID issues, medication/pharmacy products and other communication problems for Ma’s team. They could handle it without breaking a sweat. 

Waiting on the CAS Award

As an athlete’s lifetime career hangs in the balance, this is a classic case of ‘downstream issues’, ‘collateral damage’ and fallout from a lack of sport leadership. But, it shouldn’t be.

What many athletes need to know is: These systematic failures should have been addressed, corrected and implemented years ago. Maybe Sun Yang is part of a doping program. But, maybe not. 

Strategic systemic vulnerabilities, legacy and outdated IT systems, the absence of cloud based software solutions and strategic communication deficiencies aren’t sexy terms. They don’t carry the same sting or have the same seething condemning effect in main stream media and among athletes as calling another athlete a “doping cheat”. 

But, in fact, they are much more evil. Especially when the issues were known about, as well as the catastrophic consequences (collateral damage) certain scenarios would cause athletes and their careers downstream in the years to come if they didn’t implement the solutions in time, when they could have done. 

If it has taken months for the legal teams to construct accurate translations of the Sun Yang case and to render the CAS Award, then how is any athlete supposed to translate and implement the Prohibited List annually? If it takes teams of legal experts this long just for this case? 

If the anti-doping system works, let the system’s leaders demonstrate their integrity. Have the WADA Executive leadership sit down in front of the US senators in Washington. Give them 50 medications with ten to 15 of them containing banned substances. See if they can correctly pick out the banned substances using the Prohibited List in Chinese or in any other language, as athletes are required to do under ‘strict liability’. 

Let’s see if they can get a perfect score. If not, they are banned from WADA for two years. And if more than one banned substance is picked, that would result in a second adverse analytical finding. Then let them face a lifetime ban like the athletes. It should be a requirement for employment along with testing and whereabouts information. 

As they say in the tech world, eat your own dog food. Meaning, hold yourselves accountable. If you believe in what you’re selling, use your own software or the system that you have created. 

Let’s see how they do. In the meantime let’s hope someone calls Jack Ma. 

“Hello Jack? We’ve got a big problem in anti-doping and you’re the solution. Hey, you’re hosting the upcoming Winter Olympic Games in Beijing right? Super. We need a cloud based solution, mobile, new ID verifiable software, doctor/medication database correlated, with continuous iteration, harmonised with the Prohibited List, all countries, all languages, all pharmacy manufacturers, across all national borders, etc. No problem? I thought so. Have I seen your new Alibaba Cloud site? Yeah. Great UI/UX. Do lunch? Sure. You’ll send your private jet? Cool! Lausanne? OK. Thanks Jack. See you soon. Ciao baby!” 

Further Reading…

The Ticket WADA v Sun Yang

Alibaba Cloud


• This article is an edited version of the original. The author has asked The Sports Integrity Initiative to publish a PDF of the original alongside the edited version. That version is available here.

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