Features 15th October 2019

PTG2019 – Day 2: Making remedy effective

Making remedies effective for athletes abused by sport was the major theme at Day Two of Play The Game 2019 in Colorado Springs. The main talking point of the day was an extraordinary exchange between film maker Bryan Fogel, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), Vitaly Stepanov and Yuliya Stepanova about a delicate subject – is blowing the whistle worth the risk?

“The man who has brought forward this evidence has had to pay with his life”, said Fogel, referring to the fact that the former Director of the Moscow Laboratory, Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, who provided the data proving that Russia operated a State doping system, is currently under the US Witness Protection Programme. Fogel said that due to his practice of keeping diaries for 45 years, Dr. Rodchenkov still has a wealth of information about wider corruption in sport.

Fogel, who produced the Icarus’ film, said that to his knowledge, neither the International Olympic Committee (IOC) or WADA has approached Rodchenkov for evidence. Stepanov said he was approached by WADA’s former Chief Investigator, Jack Robertson, for evidence about Russian State doping in 2014. “We gave them everything we had – audio files and video files”, he said. “That was it. That is why the IOC and WADA don’t come to us. We don’t have anything else.”

But as mentioned, according to Fogel, Rodchenkov does hold more information. Both Fogel and the Stepanovs expressed concern about whether the full, true, and correct picture had been presented about Dr. Rodchenkov’s involvement in Russia’s State doping system. Stepanov quoted an unattributed comment: “If you want to ruin the truth, then stretch it”. Yuliya Stepanova expressed her anger about Dr. Rodchenkov’s role in years of doping Russian athletes, pointing out that he only came forward with information after his role had been exposed.

“I heard about two doctors when I started in sport”, she said. “Dr. [Sergei] Portugalov and Dr. [Grigory] Rodchenkov. “They competed about whose athletes would win. We were like horses to them. Why did Dr. Rodchenkov do nothing before he was fired? For so many years, he could have stopped it [State doping].”

Delegates also heard from Bonita Mersiades, a former Football Federation Australia (FFA) employee who exposed payments made by Australia’s bid to host the 2022 World Cup to football confederation officials. “You never stop being a whistleblower”, she said, highlighting that she is still facing abuse for her role in exposing corruption, most recent incident being six weeks ago.

Deja vu

Yesterday’s theme recurred – the only effective route to justice for athletes that have been abused is to take their case to human rights bodies, outside of sport’s closed judicial system. Faraz Shahlaei, of Loyola Law School, is working on a system designed to provide athletes with redress using international bodies such as the International Court of Human Rights (ICHR) and the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). This could also be used by athletes who have been denied their day in the sun through State doping systems. 

Referring to a 2003 crisis involving brutal training methods imposed in Danish swimmers, Lone Hansen, CEO of Team Denmark, said that sport was sometimes guilty of prioritising medals over athlete wellbeing. “Athletes whose wellbeing is looked after perform better”, she argued, outlining that Team Denmark is funding an institutional framework allowing athletes to speak confidentially to people who are independent of sport and independent of coaches. 

“Sexual abuse is one symptom of a sick system”, said Nancy Hogshead-Makar of Champion Women. “It is about changing the mechanics, changing the systems, so that athletes can speak up.”

One effort that is being made in this area is Project CARE (Census of Athlete Rights Experiences), explained Andrea Florence of the World Players Association (WPA). She outlined an international Study that will examine the experience of 4,000 children regarding their rights as athletes. “Players are people first and athletes second”, she explained.

When the handcuffs click

Sport will only introduce reform “when the handcuffs click”, said investigative journalist Jens Weinreich. He argued that a blacklist, preventing States and organisations currently under suspicion of corruption from hosting or bidding for sports events, could be a first step. 

“Good governance has been sacrificed on the alter of a grace and favour culture”, said Dick Pound, former WADA President. However, Pound faced criticism for failing to acknowledge a perceived conflict of interest due to his role as an IOC Member. It was argued that this represented a failure to recognise good governance procedures in sport.

“I still hold hopes that WADA will embrace change more rapidly in the near future”, said Linda Helleland, WADA’s Vice President. “If it is to embrace change, there needs to be serious reform to how the sports movement is governed. It is the poor antiquated state of sports governance that has held WADA back from embracing the right decisions in recent years.

“There is a total lack of democracy in sports governance. Too many of the decision makers in sports governance have become blinkered or don’t care about the democratic norms of wider society. People need to change their attitude.

“WADA is not fit for the future if we don’t implement good governance in our every day work. International federations implementing reforms is a positive step. But are governance reform processes carried out because members are worried, or because sponsors and athletes demand it?

“Sponsors and television have an inherent interest in clean sport. They have responsibility to invest. Nike’s reputation has been tainted. Will consumers still buy Nike products? I predict that in the future, rights holders and sponsors will demand change.”

• Photograph in header is courtesy of Thomas Søndegaard, PlayTheGame. For originals, click here. For updates on today’s sessions at PlayTheGame, follow #PTG2019 or @sport_integrity on Twitter…

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