The next Olympic Games won’t be held until 2020, but there is no break for the Olympic movement when it comes to doping controversies. The fallout from the recent decision by the World Anti-Doping Agency to lift its ban on Russia’s drug testing agency continues to reverberate across the sports world.
Canadian Olympian Beckie Scott, chair of WADA’s athlete committee, says she has been bullied by senior officials at the drug-testing body after she publicly criticized the decision that will once again allow Russia to certify its athletes are clean to compete internationally.
Other athletes were quick to back Scott’s concerns, saying they were cut out of the decision-making process and that they have “little assurance” Russian authorities will fairly test its own athletes. There have now also been calls for WADA to be investigated over the bullying allegations levelled by Scott.
Russia banned for two Olympics
Russia was banned from the 2016 Summer Olympics and the 2018 Winter Olympics (although some Russian were allowed to compete as neutral Olympic athletes) after it was revealed that state-sponsored drug cheating among Russian athletes was rampant at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.
The International Olympic Committee has since lifted its ban, provided no more athletes test positive for performance-enhancing drugs. WADA’s ruling is seen as another important step to allowing Russia back into the world of international sports.
These latest controversies have put the spotlight on WADA, which was formed in 1999 as a joint effort by global sport organizations and governments with the lofty goal to eradicate doping from sport. The focus is not just on Olympians — a main impetus to create WADA was a series of drug cheating scandals that rocked the sport of cycling in the 1990s.
Before WADA, there were other attempts to examine drug cheating in sports. After sprinter Ben Johnson tested positive for steroids in 1988 and had to return his gold medal, the Canadian government set up a royal commission to investigate drugs in sports. The Dubin Inquiry, as it was known, produced a series of recommendations that made Canada a leader in the anti-doping movement — and, it could be argued, helped lead to the formation of WADA.
In the two decades since its creation, WADA has had considerable impact on doping in sport. Although this is not an easy impact to measure, some have looked at advances in testing methods, athlete feedback and other variables to suggest that things are getting better.
Beckie Scott herself is an example. Scott’s cross-country skiing gold medal at the 2002 Olympics was originally a bronze that was upgraded to silver and then gold (more than two years later) after the original Russian medallists were found to have used performance-enhancing drugs.
WADA is headquartered in Montreal and its founding President was Dick Pound, who led the organization from 1999 to 2007. Pound was known for his strong public stand on doping, particularly when it came to cyclist Lance Armstrong and professional sporting leagues.
Many give Pound and WADA much credit for the changing stance of professional sport leagues in North America which now take doping seriously.
The fight for clean sport is complicated. The pressures — be they financial, ego, political, interpersonal, systemic or cultural — on an athlete (or a coach or a physician or an administrator) to find any edge possible is enormous.
Legal sanctions not enough
Over the years, legal sanctions and education programs have not been enough. Nor have promotional efforts. Strong public outreach, strict sanctions and costly penalties have made an impact on athlete behaviour to not dope.
But WADA’s vision of “a world where all athletes can compete in a doping-free sporting environment” remains unachieved. Positive doping tests occur every year and at every major sporting event. There is also ample evidence that cheating continues to go on undetected.
If we draw from what we know about behaviour change in humans, we know that there are three general tools available to organizations and governments to change or maintain behaviours — education, law and marketing. And, for each situation, the mix of these tactics differs and shifts in terms of what works to alter behaviour.
In the case of doping in athletes, the following would characterize these options.
Education: Programs put in place by WADA and its National Anti-Doping Association members (such as the United States Anti-Doping Agency that famously brought down Lance Armstrong) to inform athletes (elite and developing) and their support teams on doping-related issues. These are informational actions to let athletes know about the risks, penalties and consequences of doping behaviour and violations. In many situations, these are very effective.
Law: The sanctions and penalties put in place by WADA, NADAs, pro sports leagues, events and associations for doping violations. These could range from Armstrong’s lifetime ban to a warning for a first offence of not informing WADA/NADA of your whereabouts for random testing. These have impact, but again are not always effective.
Marketing: The final tactic is social marketing, which has been effective in changing social behaviours on smoking and drink and driving, where the athlete is “sold” that this is the best course of action.
Athletes remain skeptical
Whether these tools will be effective in Russia is yet to be determined.
Clearly, former athletes like Scott remain skeptical. Those still competing also feel WADA has not stood up for clean athletes. Although some other athletes, including the IOC Athlete’s Commission, supported the WADA, most athletes who have gone public on their social media channels are aligned with Scott.
WADA’s decision was made after considering many issues, such as the notion of individual athlete rights (should all Russian athletes be considered dirty?) versus collective athlete rights (is there strong enough evidence that Russian athletes will be tested properly by the Russian doping agency?).
But Beckie Scott and others have made a strong argument — that by paving the way to allow Russia back into the international sports community, WADA has strayed from its core mission.
Norm O’Reilly does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.