24th March 2021

Sport’s self-interest makes it an ineffective policeman

Sport’s commercial self interest in ensuring that competitions continue makes it ineffective at self policing against corruption, doping, and issues that may harm athletes, heard delegates at Sport Resolutions 2021. In the first session of yesterday’s virtual conference, delegates heard how sport has historically failed to take effective preventative measures against concussions, as ensuring that athletes return to the field of play as quickly as possible is in sport’s interest.

This conflict was highlighted by an uncomfortable silence after panelists were asked what should happen if concussion occurs in sports such as cycling, where even a five minute removal would mean the end of a cyclist’s race. Panelists agreed that if a cyclist shows any signs of concussion, they should be removed.

In 2012, Dr. Barry O’Driscoll resigned as Chairman of the Irish Rugby Football Union’s Medical Committee and as a member of World Rugby’s Medical & Concussion Committees in protest against a ‘five minute assessment’ of players with suspected concussion. He accused World Rugby of “experimenting with young people’s brains”, as its policies were then based on when the next game was due, rather than scientific evidence. O’Driscoll said that “the jury is out” on whether head trauma could also lead to future claims from athletes suffering from multiple sclerosis or motor neurone disease (MND). 

In a second session, delegates heard that ensuring integrity in sports governance presents an acute problem. At international federations, a President who offers national associations a greater share of money is more likely to be elected than one who promises governance reforms. 

“Corruption occurs in all forms of life, and sport is no different”, pointed out Peter Crowther of Winston & Strawn LLP. He pointed out that corruption problems within sport can be exacerbated when “good people” within that sport attempt to fix them, often leading observers to conclude that they are complicit in attempting to hide issues. 

Crowther pointed out that structure, conduct, and performance are three pillars of good practice in sports governance. He said that when corruption does occur, external, independent investigations – such as those that have recently occurred in Biathlon and Weightlifting – are the only way to maintain any credibility.

Delegates heard that separating out integrity functions into an ‘independent’ body can restore confidence that integrity issues will be properly investigated. Speakers explained that it can initially be a battle to convince a sport that it is actually in its interest to fund such a separate integrity body. A number of sports have adopted this approach, such as the Athletics Integrity Unit (AIU) of World Athletics and the International Tennis Integrity Agency (ITIA).  

However, such an approach is not without its problems. Presenter Jacqui Oatley pointed out that although such bodies are labelled as ‘independent’, they are still funded by the sporting bodies they are supposed to police. In response to this Brett Clothier, who has headed the AIU since its inception in 2017, said that World Athletics has never interfered in his work. “They’re kind of scared of us”, he said.

This point was picked up by Travis Tygart, CEO of the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), in the final session of the day. He highlighted that the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) is still controlled by sport and the Olympic Movement, which would find itself conflicted should a major doping scandal erupt before the Olympics, for example.

The Olympic Charter spells out the ‘Loyalty Oath’ that IOC Members must take…

“Can you imagine if somebody from the Board of USA Cycling was on our Board of Directors when we were conducting the Lance Armstrong investigation?” he asked. “If you take a loyalty oath to the IOC [International Olympic Committee], which all IOC Members have to do, then you have a fiduciary duty to them”, he pointed out. 

Five of the 14 WADA Executive Committee members are IOC Members, and four of them also sit on WADA’s Foundation Board. Nicole Sapstead, CEO of UK Anti-Doping (UKAD), agreed with Tygart that there should be no room on WADA’s Executive Committee for those that also serve on its Foundation Board.

To underline his point, Tygart pointed out that a provision that would have made IOC Members liable to sanctions under the 2021 World Anti-Doping Code was removed at the last minute. As reported by The Sports Integrity Initiative, this provision was removed at the November 2019 World Conference on Doping in Sport in Poland, where the 2021 Code was finalised.

Victoria Aggar, Chair of the British Athletes Commission, highlighted that most athletes believe that “big names” in sport are doping, and anti-doping organisations need to “do more” to catch them. Tygart pointed out that a first step could be to criminalise the supply of prohibited substances to athletes and that is what the Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act – initially opposed by WADA – attempts to do.

• To view a full set of tweets from the 2021 Sport Resolutions Virtual Conference 2021 in association with Winston & Strawn, view the #SportRes2021 hashtag on Twitter.

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