Taking A Pounding: A Stellar Clean Sport Careerist That Said What People Thought

It has been announced that Dick Pound, Founding President of the World Anti-Doping Association, would be retiring from the organisation’s board. Ben Nichols, former Senior Media Relations Manager for the WADA takes a look back at his impact on the work of anti-doping in sport throughout his long career.

It was during my morning commute to Montreal’s Stock Exchange Tower on the second day of my WADA tenure in June 2013 when I first truly heard of Dick Pound’s name, that is if you ignore the reams of anti-doping-crash-course-reading I’d scanned in the months leading up to my new job heading Media Relations for the global regulator in what was a post Lance-Armstrong-mea-culpa-to-Oprah-Winfrey, pre-Russian-doping-scandal era.

It was standing room only on the Number 80 bus that oppressively humid Thursday morning, and with the impressively dominant Mont Royal to the right of me, the hipster Franco-Anglo ‘Le Plateau’ neighbourhood to the left, and the mini Manhattan Montreal downtown ahead of me, I felt a finger jab me in the left arm. As I glanced over my left shoulder, and before I could summon the words to speak, this assertive fellow commuter – who had been peering at my commuter reading which adorned the unmistakable WADA logo – said two abrupt words to me: “Dick Pound” he said, firmly, swiftly followed by two more: “good man”, he added. And yet, before I had the chance to engage in conversation, and put two and two together, this Quebecer was darting for the opening bus doors, exiting stage left to get on with his Montreal day.

“Dick’s leadership at WADA was a case of right man, right place, right time.”

It is poignant that this brief encounter with a local Montrealer and signed-up-for-life member of the Dick Pound fan club was to stay with me for so many years – and, comical even, that following this initial in hindsight humorous encounter on a Montreal bus, I was to come to work closely with Dick on much more serious matters just a couple of years later when running media relations for the eponymous Pound Report into systematic doping in Russian athletics; trips to world-watched Press Conferences, landmark media interviews and all.

Now, I’m sure Dick himself would be the first to admit that his name is not one that is easily forgotten. That’s something that stuck with me from the moment of that Number 80 bus finger jab to my conversations with Montrealers over the four years I spent in the Canadian city to the international reputation that Dick commanded on the anti-doping stage. In Montreal, aside from his tumultuous, and much needed, tenure as Founding President of the World Anti-Doping Agency, however, he was widely known as Chancellor of McGill University during the same decade.

Though long-finished as President of WADA during my own tenure, I had the privilege of working for Dick during what was the seminal moment for how anti-doping is known today: the start of the Russian doping crisis, AKA ‘The Pound Report’. This period working for Dick involved two red-eye-trans-Atlantic trips to Europe – the first Press Conference at a central Geneva Hotel for Part One in which Dick, Gunter Younger and Richard McLaren unveiled their devastating findings to the world’s media, and the head-scratching location that was a roadside hotel in no-man’s land somewhere equidistant between Munich and Munich International Airport for Part Two of the damning findings in state-sponsored doping in Russian athletics.

Dick’s leadership at WADA was a case of right man, right place, right time. His tough stance in upholding the at-the-time new global anti-doping rules alongside a robust approach in WADA’s public tussle with the global cycling leadership during the sport’s widespread doping troubles was welcomed, by those that mattered most, the regulator’s number one stakeholder: the clean athlete community.

With the cycling doping era in the rearview mirror, it was his tough stance on Russia following the release of the Pound and McLaren Reports that helped move WADA onto the right side of the argument, the right side of public opinion, and in contrast to the increasingly isolated International Olympic Committee, in calling for tough sanctions to match the worst doping crisis in history. All this at a time when we at WADA were regularly facing accusations of being too close to the IOC; an argument which has strengthened in the past couple of years as the regulator has been engaged in a standoff with the athlete community over how strong to stand over the final embers of the Russian doping saga.

There were not only these two trips to Europe in which I supported Dick’s media commitments for his Independent Commission’s findings, there were the numerous WADA Board Meetings, from Colorado Springs to Glasgow, and from Montreal to Johannesburg, at which Dick’s honest appraisal of the state of anti-doping – addressing the elephant in the room that so many others were thinking but not saying – would be heard, and recorded by the far-travelled journalists. And it is this, frank, honest, candid personality of Dick’s that I gauged from my brief four-year foray during his long and distinguished career that stands head and shoulders above other attributes.

His staring down of the political correctness agenda and, quite frankly, his no nonsense, get-on-and-call-a-spade-a-spade ability to say what most people are thinking when it comes to anti-doping; not least in recent years on the IOC’s reluctance to side with athlete and public opinion and failure to ban Russia at Rio 2016 following the worst doping scandal in history.

In a world when political correctness has reached boiling point, and when the increasingly far-fetched efforts by a vocal minority on the illiberal left to impose out-of-touch politically correct agendas on the majority are starting to be questioned in the mainstream, Dick Pound has stood out as an anti-doping voice of reason. This is perhaps best evidenced by the fact that, from press conferences to WADA board meetings, Dick and his sharp tongue on the anti-doping issues of the day would be in high demand, offering soundbites to reporters where many others may be thinking the obvious, but would fail to say it.

“From press conferences to WADA board meetings, Dick and his sharp tongue on the anti-doping issues of the day would be in high demand, offering soundbites to reporters where many others may be thinking the obvious, but would fail to say it.”

Indeed, it is ironic, that as Dick officially calls time on his decades’ long anti-doping career – though there will be no riding off into the clean sport sunset yet, of that I’m sure – political correctness is starting to go out of fashion, at least in western societies such as the UK. As Dick calls time on his anti-doping career, the tide is, in the UK at least, turning against the illiberal “liberalism” with a cultural war on wokeism gaining traction after years of Orwellian-like thoughtcrime imposed on anyone that may cross its path and accidentally, or purportedly, “offend” someone.

At the start of 2021, it is clear that in many western societies, the penny is starting to drop that after a couple of decades of one way traffic, the right not to be “offended” is indeed not a right at all; at least not if free speech is held of higher importance. And if there is a legacy indeed, aside from the confrontational and often transformational clean sport crusading work that Dick pioneered, it is perhaps that because we have the likes of Dick Pound and others in society who stand up for, cherish and promote free speech, that true free speech exists at all today. And for that, anti-doping in sport should be thankful.

“The Time Is Now For Sport To Defy The Doomsayers And Embrace Its Role As A Beacon Of Light For The Rest Of Society”

International Sports Communications Consultant Ben Nichols looks at the role sport needs to play within the wider community in his new exclusive piece for iSPORTCONNECT.

At a moment in time when the United Kingdom is finally embarking on its post-European Union future after four-and-a-half seemingly interminable years of uncertainty since the landmark and decisive ‘in’ or ‘out’ referendum, it will be symbolic – to many at least – that this finally-reached-landmark moment has coincided with another joyous moment: Britain becoming the first country worldwide to start rolling out the Pfizer / BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine.

These two moments combined – the first perhaps a result of collective relief following exhaustion of all things ‘Brexit’ whichever way you voted, and the latter pure elation for so many after a dark year that has tested us in ways we couldn’t have imagined –  together, they signal a new, brighter dawn ahead. A new, exciting era for the UK in a fast-changing world. 

Whenever there have been success stories, or moments of positive progress in the UK’s story over the past four and a half years, there has been a predictable stream – predominantly from the left-wing segments of the press – of a ‘despite Brexit’ narrative. This ‘despite Brexit’ stream from the more Guardian and BBC-esque quarters of the press has been regularly fed to the public as if the UK’s departure from the EU after 45 years was to be an unfathomable disaster; this, despite the fact that a small but clear majority of the British population voted in the biggest act of democracy the UK had ever witnessed to depart the EU, and also despite the fact that many countries across the world do perfectly well not aligned with a political club such as the EU.

Yet, as the increasingly impotent efforts of a vocal minority to impose a ‘despite Brexit’ narrative on the British population have waned, the shift has turned – as Coronavirus has taken hold – to a ‘despite Covid’ narrative emerging at the first sniff of any success story or positive progress noticed throughout the pandemic. 

I don’t need to spare words in this column to reiterate just what a challenging year it has been worldwide, not least for the various industries and economies who have suffered immensely as a result of Coronavirus. The negative impact the virus has had is beyond question. However, the ubiquity of the ‘despite Covid’ narrative that has arisen, not least in the global sport industry, has been palpable and increasingly been seen as an excuse, by some, to sit on hands and wait this out.

The notion that sport “must just wait for 2021” has, in my view, never been a robust argument. Whilst sport itself has, in many instances, been literally put on hold and whilst budgets and resources have, in many instances (though certainly not all) been frozen, the idea that we simply sit and wait has to many observers been seen as a convenient excuse; a sort of ‘let’s wait and see who jumps first’ approach. 

However, whilst the ‘despite Covid’ narrative has been allowed to prevail so far and wide – causing unnecessary gloom for an industry traditionally known for hope and optimism – what has stood out are the organisations, individuals, the leaders and entrepreneurs who have not allowed Covid-19 to be used as a convenient excuse for lack of business. It is these organisations and individuals that have shown that most cherished of qualities in times like these: agility

Rather than sitting out and waiting, it is the Restrata’s of this world – Restrata is the British safety and security company that shifted its focus from its oil and gas sector comfort zone to providing the biosecure environment for the ECB England test series cricket matches, live fan trials for Twenty20 matches and the relocated IPL cricket this year – that have taken a look in there mirror and considered pragmatically how they can still do business in 2020, even if that business is not their usual “bread and butter”.

This ‘open for business’ attitude has been welcome, and has stood some organisations, brands and individuals out from the crowd. The stories of businesses being established – not closed – during 2020, the stories of entrepreneurialism and business generation, these are the hallmarks within the sport industry that we should take note of and that will stand out in this new, shaken-up, post-Covid sporting world – and it is a world that will be different. 

And there are are examples aplenty. Take Olympic Champion Team GB cyclist Callum Skinner who established not one but two businesses during the heart of Lockdown Mark 1 in the UK – sustainable coffee brand, Five Rings, and innovative, award-winning cycling glasses business, HindSight. There’s Rio 2016 Para-Powerlifting Silver Medalist Ali Jawad who only last week announced the impending arrival of what looks to be a groundbreaking new Digital Platform for the disabled community, called Accessercise. Then there’s the Professional Triathletes Organisation’s (PTO) new Championship that took place at Daytona Beach last weekend, marking the beginning of the PTO’s journey to progress and modernise the sport – not least triathletes’ earning potential and rights. None of these need come with a ‘despite Covid’ label attached.

Too often, we are encouraged to believe that challenges – even challenges as rare as Covid-19 – must set industries such as sport back, and allow us to ‘wait it out’. Yet, on the contrary, unpredictable years such as 2020 must merely prove to ourselves that we should reflect, yes, but also adjust and act, differently if necessary, to keep the proverbial ball moving, to drive the global sports economy and to restore confidence to a sector in which it has been too lacking of late. 

With vaccinations now being rolled out in Britain and other nations worldwide, now is not the time to sit and wait or hope others others jump first. The story of this era is still being written yet it will be determined by those that reflected, yes, but most of all those that adjusted, looked outside their comfort zone, took risks and acted. 

The world doesn’t wait for the sit-and-wait-ers. Sport must now defy the doomsayers and embrace its role as a beacon of light for the rest of society as we herald in 2021.

By Ben Nichols, International Sports Communications Consultant, former head of Media Relations for the World Anti-Doping Agency and former Director of Communications and Public Affairs for Commonwealth Games Federation

Member Insights: What Effect Can The PTPA Have In A Sport Light-Years Ahead Of Others In Propelling The Athlete Voice?

Another acronym enters sport but to what effect in a sport already light years ahead of others in propelling the athlete voice? International communications consultant Ben Nichols looks at the Professional Tennis Players Association – or PTPA – entering international tennis,  a sport already well ahead of its peers with its inclusiveness of players’ interests.

On the eve of the socially-distanced, crowd-less US Open, a new acronym entered sport. Another acronym sporting entity in an industry already swimming with them. Drowning with them in fact. For those of us that work in sport, we’re beginning to struggle to keep up with the plethora of sporting acronyms. As for those of us that don’t, well, enough said. The marketing folk of the international sport industry must surely be reaching boiling point when it concerns acronyms; surely, we are approaching the point of no recollection when it comes to new hastily-assembled acronyms? Perhaps, my prophesying of the hasty death of the sporting organisation acronym are just that: prophecies, because if the latest incarnation of the acronym sports organisation is anything to go by, they are still very much in vogue.

But, this is not an article about acronyms. Far from it, it’s about something far more impactful and far more defining. Potentially. This time, for the sport of tennis; a sport that I grew up playing, qualified as a coach in and spent the early years of my career in, resulting in a role as head of Press for the ATP and WTA Dubai Tennis Championships.

“As if it needed reminding, the very beginnings of the ATP came about through players meeting in a secluded stairwell at the US Open to discuss the need for a players’ association”

As a sport, tennis has, I believe, been far more progressive than many of its counterparts. Though some will beg to differ, to me it is a sport that has embraced change far more than some give it credit for. And that ranges from the professional tours’ marketing efforts, securing title sponsorships, embracing equal prize money, working with the players; and it includes the Grand Slams such as Wimbledon, too (look through the wisteria and genteel aura of Wimbledon and there is a tournament that, certainly in how it projects its brand, is always evolving. And so that’s why, to eyes outside of the tennis bubble, the notion of a new breakaway players’ union – the Professional Tennis Players Association – is all the more surprising.

Over the years, professional tennis (both men’s and women’s) has been light years ahead of its counterparts across the industry. As if it needed reminding, the very beginnings of the ATP came about through players meeting in a secluded stairwell at the US Open to discuss the need for a players’ association; a journey that led to the now-famous “press conference in a parking lot” from which stemmed the ATP Tour and a major role for the players in shaping tennis. In fact, the partnership was unique with the players and tournaments each having an equal say in how the circuit would be run.

“It may come as a surprise to some, but the Djokovic-led body did not come out of nowhere. It has clearly been in brewing for quite some time, with some players feeling a lack of representation within the Grand Slam system.”

And, to all intents and purposes, with the ATP as it is today (through the Board of Directors), that healthy 50% player – 50% tournament split still exists; and then there’s the ATP Players’ Council itself. The ATP of 2020 – and men’s tennis to that end – resembles a hugely advanced ‘athlete voice’ culture, years ahead of so many of the Olympic sports. You only have to take the likes of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) – an organisation that is the embodiment of fairness in so many ways – where the WADA Athlete Chair had no vote at the decision-making table; and that during the Russian scandal, a period that defined anti-doping. To many, that is bewildering, yet compare it to professional tennis and the players’ voice that Djokovic and others are claiming is still sub-standard, well tennis and the players’ voice is in a strong place already, PTPA or no PTPA.

So, what for the PTPA, what can we expect and what void will it fill? Well, it may come as a surprise to some, but the Djokovic-led body did not come out of nowhere. It has clearly been in brewing for quite some time, with some players feeling a lack of representation within the Grand Slam system (a system which, given tennis’ complex construct, sits outside of the ATP and WTA Tours, and is therefore free to act at liberty). It is clear from early signs that the PTPA is there to grow the voice of tennis players – and that is to be welcomed – but as for the real purpose, well that remains to be seen. It’s unclear the long-term direction of the PTPA, what is will cost and how it will be costed.

“In many ways, the arrival onto the scene of the PTPA mirrors a pattern seen in athletics (track and field) this summer through the formation of Christian Taylor and Emma Coburn’s ‘The Athletics Association’”

On the flip side, and as I have argued for before, any athlete voice is better than none for a sport, even if that comes in the form of “breakaway movements” and on the face of it appears to muddy the waters. Different player associations bring different merits, and two heads are often better than one, so the PTPA needs to be seen in this light. In many ways, the arrival onto the scene of the PTPA mirrors a pattern seen in athletics (track and field) this summer through the formation of Christian Taylor and Emma Coburn’s ‘The Athletics Association’ as an independent startup to increase the power of athletes at the decision-making table in their sport.

The Athletics Association have made it clear that their interest is not in division, nor in subverting the impact the World Athletics Athletes Council has, rather its to complement their role; and this is not a dissimilar narrative articulated by Djokovic and co. on the eve of Flushing Meadows when he stated: “We just want to have our own organisation, that is 100% ours. We are definitely going to try and work with ATP, and all the governing bodies.”

Many, particularly those outside of tennis, would say that tennis players have it pretty good already in terms of their rights and their influence at the decision-making table. And many would say that the arrival of the PTPA is one acronym too many for sport.

Only time will tell as to what comes of this new association at a time when many are calling for unity, not further division.

Ben Nichols is an international communications consultant and the former head of Media Relations for the World Anti-Doping Agency, Director of Communications and Public Affairs for the Commonwealth Games Federation and Chief Press Officer of ATP – WTA Dubai Tennis Championships. His new podcast ‘Athletes: The Other Side’ was launched this month.

Member Insights: “Watching Sport On Television Has Given So Many Of Us Our Pastime Back, But Is That Alone Enough?”

With the resumption of test events underway in England, such as last Sunday at the final of the World Snooker Championship, the country is aiming to be able to reintroduce fans back into sporting venues in early October, Ben Nichols says sport needs to be bullish but responsible for the good of the industry.

At times like these – if we’ve ever known such times – we tend to turn to experts to tell us how we’re going to find a way out of the tunnel.

Experts – and we might well have heard enough of so-called experts in recent years, as British politician, Michael Gove so memorably asserted – are something of a guiding star, people on which we hold so much faith that they can tell us, unequivocally, just how long these Covid times will impact us as they have. Just how quickly we can emerge from this tunnel of pandemic and despair and re-engage with life as we know it, or as we once knew it.

The reality is that no-one can guarantee when life will return to “normal”. Experts can hazard an (often very) educated guess, they can advise as to the best precautions to take, the risks associated with certain behaviours and actions and the effects that might have on catching Covid.

“Rather than playing a waiting game alone, the notion of confidence is so important”

Until ‘the vaccine’ is found to prevent Covid-19, or until the science tells us it’s safe to live our pre- 2020 lives once again, can we really breathe the collective sigh of relief we all so desire?

The answer is, unfortunately, no. So, that’s why, rather than playing a waiting game alone, the notion of confidence is so important. And there are few sectors, few industries more in need of confidence than sport right now.

Whilst a situation like Covid force feeds us all with a dose of perspective about the important things in life – and as much of those that love and work in sport like to believe sport is more than life and death, I think we acknowledge it’s not – we still like to look up to sport as a means of escape from the pandemic in which the world finds itself. Whilst, initially, at least (during the earlier weeks of Covid in early 2020) sport was forced to take a back seat, it has increasingly in the past month or two become the focus again as a bright light in these tricky times. Live sport (on television, at least) has been a welcome reprieve and a sign, perhaps just a sign at this stage, that the return of fans to sporting stadia is on the horizon.

“There’s something just not right about watching sport without fans in the stadia”

At least watching sport on television has given so many of us our pastime back, but is that alone enough? To many, it is not. There’s something just not right about watching sport without fans in the stadia and with broadcasters’ attempts at integrating fans’ cheers to compensate for the silence. There’s something not quite right about the World Championships Snooker – that calendar British event that usually coincides with the May Bank Holiday – taking place in the middle of summer. There’s something not right about what is usually the first golf major of the year, the Masters, taking place in November of all months. But then, this is not a normal year.

With all this change throwing us sports fans – and the industry – off course, it makes it all the more admirable that there are those out there prepared to be bold, to take a step aimed at getting sport back on its knees. That’s why, despite the recent setback, hats off should go to the UK Government (and, yes, our positive, optimistic and bullish Prime Minister) for taking measures to bring back live sport in stadia for fans, with all the necessary safety measures such as bluetooth chips to assist with track and trace intelligence gathering.

“Where some lead – and lead responsibly given the sensitivities of this pandemic – others will follow. Confidence is, partly at least, sport’s way out of this.”

The safety of fans must continue to be paramount, but it is the “can do”, entrepreneurially-minded organisations, governments, politicians and other individuals who look forward and focus on solutions that will reinstall confidence in people gathering for sport again. It is, after all, confidence that breeds confidence, and where some lead – and lead responsibly given the sensitivities of this pandemic – others will follow. Confidence is, partly at least, sport’s way out of this.

For it is those that adopt the proactive, solution-led, bullish attitude to carrying society out of this pandemic with confidence that sport needs to see more of. It is these individuals, organisations, companies and governments that we need to see more of if the UK’s possible 1st October return to stadia for live fans is to happen, even at partial capacity.

Because, after all, opting for a permanent waiting game strategy is no strategy at all.

Ben Nichols is an international sports communication consultant, who has previously worked for the Commonwealth Games Federation, Athletics Integrity Unit, World Anti-Doping Association and Right Formula.

Have an opinion piece you would like to share via iSportconnect? Email ben@isportconnect.com to discuss further.

Member Insights: Arrival Of Athletics Association Proves Athlete Movement Is A Runaway Train

This week’s arrival of the Athletics Association proves athlete movement is a runaway train intent on putting athletes at the centre of how sport is run, says Ben Nichols in our latest Member Insights piece.

Earlier this month, I put pen to paper to articulate how, through what seems to be a continual drip feed approach, athletes across the world had found their voice.

On a whole stream of issues ranging from, on one hand, athletes collectively calling for governance changes to their sports or anti-doping reform to, on the other hand, individual athletes spurred on to create lasting societal change on issues such as race or poverty, athletes have, with ever-increasing momentum, been finding their voice.

The desire for the commissions to have full autonomy has faced a reality check by the semi-attachment to the ruling body for their sport.

This week, as if further evidence were needed of this sea change in sport, the Athletics Association launched to ensure that track and field athletes would be at the heart of their sport’s decision-making process. If nothing else, the Athletics Association’s launch proves, as with the inception of athlete-led movement Global Athlete 18 months ago, that the fearless no-strings-attached athlete voice movement is in the ascendancy. And by announcing their plans to provide support services and member benefits for athletes, including a hardship grant fund, training courses, and discounts on products, it’s clear that this athlete-run body has put long, hard thought into how to provide a leg up to athletes.

The Athletics Association was revealed earlier this week, with key athletes such as Katarina Johnson-Thompson and Adam Gemili.

Athlete Commissions in their more “traditional” form – those commissions that are established by existing sports governing bodies and federations – have made inroads in recent years, by ensuring to an extent, that their parent organisations heed, or at least listen to their views. However, despite the clear advantages of the existence of these commissions, their limitations have been self-evident by the very fact that they are attached “at the hip” to their parent organisations. The desire for the commissions to have full autonomy has faced a reality check by the semi-attachment to the ruling body for their sport.

Even the World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA’s) Athlete Committee which, with the widely-respected Beckie Scott at its helm, proved for many years to be such a frontrunner for how Athlete Committees could, or should, operate, eventually proved to be hampered by the confines of the structures in which it operated; it’s at-odds position with its parent organisation on what it believed was an underwhelming response by WADA to the Russian doping crisis eventually led to the resignation of members such as now-British Athletes Commission Chair, Vicki Aggar.

If they approach positive reform of their sport in the right spirit – not through a ‘them versus us’ approach – then athletics will be the real winner.

The Athletics Association, or at least its promise, offers something different. Clearly established as a result of the not-wholly-popular changes to Diamond League events on the World Athletics calendar, the Association comes at a time when other issues such as the restrictive practices on athletes marketing themselves at an Olympic Games (Rule 40) and athletes being unable to peacefully protest on the biggest stage of them all (Rule 50), are at the fore. With these controversial sporting issues to be addressed, this free-spirited new-style athlete commission is very much of its time. An Athlete Commission 2.0. An Athlete Commission re-booted; and one fit for the modern age.

In its own words, the Association is launching to ‘protect and advance the future of athletics by unifying and defending the voice of elite track and field athletes worldwide’. It has positive aims. Aims which could be achieved by working collaboratively with other commissions – such as the World Athletics Athletes Commission – and with administrators who have the best interests of their sport at heart.

If they approach positive reform of their sport in the right spirit – not through a ‘them versus us’ approach – then athletics will be the real winner. And World Athletics will benefit too, because it is only through real athlete “buy in” to the strategic direction of the sport, that track and field athletics can move forward as one.

It is only with that athlete “buy in” – and the diversity of opinion that comes with athlete consultation – that sport can truly claim to be athlete-centred.

Ben Nichols is an international sports communication consultant, who has previously worked for the Commonwealth Games Federation, Athletics Integrity Unit, World Anti-Doping Association and Right Formula.

Have an opinion piece you would like to share via iSportconnect? Email ben@isportconnect.com to discuss further.

OPINION: An Athlete-Led Anti-Doping Revolution?

Over the last couple of months, we have witnessed something of a phenomenon by anti-doping standards. Athletes – concerned by the World Anti-Doping Agency’s September decision to bend the conditions of the so-called Compliance Roadmap and reinstate the Russian Anti-Doping Agency – have been speaking up in droves, in their thousands, making it known that not only was WADA’s decision unpopular across the international athlete community and the public, but that they viewed it to be unjust given that they, the athletes, are quite rightly expected to play by the anti-doping rules that govern them.

The athletes that were so vehemently opposed to the decision – which should we need any reminding followed what is widely considered the biggest doping scandal of the twentieth century, if not all time – came from all corners of the world. It has often been said that the athletes that care about anti-doping, those that care most about protecting a level playing field come from western nations – your Britains, your Americas, your Germanys, your Australias and your Canadas – but, while one could argue that the bulk of athletes’ clean sport passion does emanate from these countries where perhaps speaking up is more culturally palatable than in others, it is no longer true that they are entirely western athletes.

The last couple of months has proven that shift, with athletes from Ghana, Nigeria among other countries calling for change. The level of athlete outcry shows we have reached a tipping point where it has become not just a vocal minority speaking on the need for fairness but, quite probably, a vocal majority.

Is this tantamount to an athlete-led anti-doping revolution of sorts? You’d better believe it, because to all intents and purposes this has had, and will continue to have, the making of a revolution for the clean sport movement. In life, you get a sense of when things are not going to change, when the status quo is going to prevail.

Equally, however, you get a sense when change is in the air and when you have reached that tipping point. For anti-doping, that moment has now arrived, and it was in the capital of the United States in late October; at The White House, no less. There was a feeling at The Emergency White House Anti-Doping Summit – which convened international athletes, anti-doping leaders, governments and other supporters of clean sport – that change really was in the ascendancy. I was fortunate enough to travel to Washington D.C. to witness the meeting – which took place in the heat of what media have dubbed “the anti-doping civil war” – and, having sat in my fair share of anti-doping meetings (!) I can tell you that this one was different.

This was a meeting consisting of raw, heartfelt, authentic speeches and interventions – not to mention the odd tear – from the very athletes that have been affected by recent doping crises, and by the very athletes coming forward with, not “criticism” as it has been described, but constructive, positive ideas and solutions for how the anti-doping movement might build on the progress that has been made in WADA’s first couple of decades.

The fact alone that anti-doping had reached the heights of the national government of the world’s leading superpower was telling in itself: the subliminal message from that day in D.C. was anti-doping status quo was no longer. Following the Emergency Summit, it was abundantly clear of what athletes and the public’s expectations were for the global anti-doping regulator: a tough and uncompromising stance against cheating.

So, where does the White House’s intervention in the “anti-doping civil war” leave clean sport, and, more importantly, where does it leave athletes as we head into 2019?

Well, to give you a simplistic snapshot of the landscape following all the recent talk of reform, two separate camps have emerged. In one camp you have the athletes, national anti-doping leaders, governments and arguably sports fans who want reform of the system so that a tougher, more “no-nonsense” approach is taken against cheating, whether that be cheating by athletes, or systematic cheating by a sport or a country. This group has been labelled “the reformers” and they are widely believed to represent broader public opinion. In the other camp you have the International Olympic Committee (IOC), some sports federations, along with what is perceived to be a minority of athlete opinion and now WADA itself.

This “side” is seen to take more of a “sports promotion” mindset, and view WADA as more of a collaborative provider of services rather than a police body for international doping in sport. Confused or bewildered at this split? Welcome to the world of anti-doping! It is these two diverging schools of thoughts – with the two different “camps” in opposing corners – that will be the battleground of the next 12 months or so as the campaign for who becomes the next President of WADA begins in earnest.

As for the athletes, regardless of which camp you sit in with anti-doping, it must surely be welcomed and seen as healthy that they have come to the table with pragmatic and principled solutions. If anti-doping truly wants to be an athlete-centered cause, it must expect that athletes may have a different perspective to what’s gone before.

Athletes have found their voice, and called for greater independence, transparency and accountability from today’s WADA. It is significant, and in my view, right, that they have not called for WADA to be disbanded – doing so would take us back years in terms of the progress made – but they have called for major changes and improvements to the way WADA’s Boards reach their decisions; decisions that can impact the lives and careers of athletes for years to come.

And while the athletes’ calls have not been altogether heeded – athletes lobbied for a positive reform Paper called ‘The Alternative’ to be introduced, but WADA opted for more modest changes, though important changes nonetheless, at its most recent Board meeting – there are hints of small steps forward that can be built upon. There is also the upcoming Presidential campaign for who will become the Agency’s fourth President, at the start of 2020.

The Norwegian Minister, Linda Helleland, is a favourite amongst the athlete community with her positive, reform-based approach to anti-doping, and athletes will be pinning their hopes on Helleland succeeding in her mission.

Athletes can also take solace in the fact that public opinion is firmly in their corner. It is sometimes easy to forget in the anti-doping bubble that outside the corridors of power and the Board table were decisions are made there is a whole world of athletes and sports fans out there who have a pretty simple demand: no tolerance to cheating, no if’s and no but’s. They want to believe what they are watching once again, and is that really too much to ask?

Ben is the Founder-CEO of Ben Nichols Communications, the new UK-based, internationally-focused Sports Communications Consultancy that specialises in working with organisations, teams, athletes, events and brands with untapped potential, putting them firmly on the map.

This opinion piece was published with Mallory Group.

Extend Grass-Court Tennis Season To Engage More Fans

The grass-court season in pro tennis should run longer in order to engage more fans.

That’s the view of sports communications & PR specialist Ben Nichols, a long-time member of the iSportconnect community.

Currently, only one-eighth of the ATP and WTA seasons are held on the surface. The US Open hard-court series is now underway with the US Open starting in three weeks’ time.

Nichols says that expanding the grass-court season by a week or two would challenge more players on the circuit, increase the game’s unpredictability and ultimately boost fan engagement.

Como un reloj, las joyas deportivas de Gran Bretaña en la casta de la corona – ¡Pero no te sientas culpable!

Por Ben Nichols, experto internacional en comunicación deportiva y relaciones públicas. 

¿No fue George Orwell quien dijo “sólo cuando te encuentras con alguien de una cultura diferente a la tuya, es cuando comienzas a darte cuenta de lo que realmente son tus propias creencias”?. Independientemente de si Orwell pronunció o no, estas palabras suenan ciertas. De hecho, se ha convertido en algo así como un pasatiempo nacional, de vez en cuando entrañable y a menudo innecesario, para ‘derrotar al país’ y mirar hacia lo positivo que tienen otros países. Este pasatiempo nacional es tal vez un síntoma de un sentido más amplio de declive en el estado global y la importancia de Gran Bretaña en los últimos cincuenta años más o menos. Tal vez la inminente partida del Reino Unido de la Unión Europea, el Brexit, revertirá esa sensación de declive en la talla global del Reino Unido, o tal vez no. Realmente depende de su perspectiva, pero una cosa debe ser más que reproche a la crítica, y son las joyas deportivas del Reino Unido en la corona que, sin importar el clima, y sin importar el clima político o cultural en el que vivimos, se vuelven como un reloj cada año. Y son sólo eso: juyas de la corona del mundo deportivo de as que el Reino Unido debería poder presumir o ser indiferente.

Para volver a la referencia Orwelliana, y para torcerla un poco para que se ajuste al propósito de esta columna, me parece que ‘sólo cuando trabajas o vives en una cutura diferente a la tuya, comienzas a darte cuenta de lo que son las joyas del deporte de tu país’. Como alguien que ha trabajado en la industria del deporte en los Estados Unidos, Emiratos Árabes Unidos, Australia y Canadá, siempre me ha impresionado el repertorio de Reino Unido en cuanto a accesorios deportivos. Lo que quiero decir es que, por supuesto, cuando trabajas en el extranjero tienes el lujo de distanciarte para juzgar cómo se comparan los eventos deportivos del Reino Unido con los del país en el que estés.

Esto me afectó más cuando vivía en Canadá. Rápidamente crecí apreciando lo que el deporte norteamericano de las ‘Grandes Ligas’ tenía para ofrecer, desde la NHL hasta la MLB y la NFL. Y ahora, están ampliando sus ambiciones deportivas para participar cada vez más en deportes internacionales, como por ejemplo Rugby o Fútbol. Del mismo modo, desde lejos, viviendo en Canadá, era evidente lo que el Reino Unido hizo tan bien, y de hecho, lo que exportó tan bien y no menos importante, la Premier League.

Como británico en el extranjero, el mes de marzo significaba que me estaba perdiendo la Cheltenham Gold Cup, significaba que me estaba perdiendo la carrera de botes de la Universidad, y significaba que al mes siguiente me perdería uno de los eventos de resistencia más grandes del mundo, la maratón de Londres.

Ahora bien, no es que amase las carreras de caballos o el remo, más bien era una familiaridad con el calendario. Por mucho que nos guste el cambio y la mejora en la forma en la que consumimos el deporte, también somos culpables de ser criaturas de hábito, y al igual que la forma en la que el clima canadiense recuerda a cualquier canadiense las temporadas cambiantes, es el calendario deportivo el que recuerda a los británicos del año en el que nos encontramos. La familiaridad con el calendario y la emoción que aporta, sólo mejoran al llegar al Grand National en Aintree, una ocasión deportiva nacional como cualquier otra en Reino Unido. Con la llegada de mayo, también llega el Campeonato Mundial de Snooker en el Crucible, señalando el primer fin de semana de vacaciones bancarias del verano británico, antes de la apertura del Test Match de Inglaterra en Home of Cricket. Luego en junio, llegan las carreras de caballos de la Royal Ascot, y la temporada del ‘tenis en césped’ con Wimbledon en cabeza.

Para algunos, estos eventos son afectuosamente y ávidamente conocidos, para otros, son sólo parte del calendario británico. Cuán afortunados somos de presenciar estos eventos deportivos tan excepcionales. Como miembros de la comunidad deportiva, debemos apreciar la oportunidad que tenemos de trabajar en estos eventos. No es para decir que son mejores o superiores a los eventos deportivos de otras partes del mundo, pero es que son únicos y muchos de ellos históricos por naturaleza. Estos eventos son, en muchos sentidos, reliquias de una época pasada que han resistido la prueba del tiempo. Podría decirse que estos eventos son productos más sólidos de lo que les haya otorgado su identidad colectiva como antídoto para el deporte comercial moderno. Sin embargo, para sobrevivir, estos eventos y sus organizadores tienen que alcanzar ese importante equilibrio entre la modernización y el mantenimiento de la identidad por a que se han hecho tan conocidos y amados.

Habiendo vivido en diferentes continentes, países y culturas, siempre me ha sorprendido lo mucho que las poblaciones de otros países, a menudo más que los británicos, valoran algunas de estas joyas distintivas del calendario deportivo británico con todas las peculiaridades, costumbres, y equipaje que traen. En un área en la que la globalización ha traído tanta homogeneidad a nuestro mundo, las personas anhelan un ápice de diferencia y distinción, y eso se extiende a nuestros eventos deportivos.

En Gran Bretaña, es hora de que la gente aprecie el calendario deportivo, valorarlo como se merece, y que trate de perseverar lo que hace que esta colección de eventos sea tan grandiosa.

Like Clockwork, Britain’s Sporting Jewels In The Crown Breed Familiarity – But Don’t Get Complacent!

By Ben Nichols, International Sports Communications and PR Expert

Was it not George Orwell that said ‘it is only when you meet someone of a different culture from yourself that you begin to realize what your own beliefs really are’? Irrespective of whether Orwell did or did not utter those words, they ring true, because we in Britain are so often incapable of, or at best poor at, articulating the assets that make the UK the great country it is. In fact, it has become something of a national pastime – occasionally an endearing one, often an unnecessary one– to “beat the country up” and look to the positives that other countries have rather than their own on our very doorstep. This national hobby is perhaps symptomatic of a broader sense of decline in Britain’s global status and significance the past fifty years or so. Perhaps the impending departure of the UK from the European Union – or “Brexit” as it is commonly known – will reverse that sense of decline in the UK’s global stature – or perhaps not, it really depends on your perspective; but one thing should be beyond reproach of criticism and that is the UK’s sporting jewels in the crown that, no matter the weather, and no matter the political or cultural climate in which we live, come around like clockwork every year. And they are just that: crown jewels of the sporting world of which the UK should be able to boast, not moan about or be indifferent to. They are truly unique, and the envy of much of the sporting world, whether we realize it or not.

To come back to the Orwellian reference, and to twist it slightly to fit the purpose of this column, it seems to me that it’s ‘only when you work or live in a different culture from yourself that you begin to realize what your country’s own sporting jewels are’. As someone who has worked in the sport industry in the United States, United Arab Emirates, Australia and Canada – as well as at sports events on a more temporary basis in other parts of the world – it has always struck me just what an impressive repertoire the UK has when it comes to sporting fixtures. The point I make is that of course when you are working overseas, you have the luxury of distance with which to make a judgment on how the UK’s sports events compare to those in the country you live, but that’s not to say, wherever you are in the world, you cannot take a step back and observe the plethora of sporting jewels that Britain has to offer each and every year without fail.

This dawned on me most when living in Canada. I fast grew an appreciation for what North American ‘Major League’ sport had to offer, from the NHL to the MLB to the NFL. Whilst broadening its sporting ambitions to engage increasingly in international sports (take Rugby Sevens or Soccer, for example), Canada and the USA know what their bread and butter sports are – and they do them well. Likewise, from afar, living in Canada, it was evident what the UK did so well – and indeed, what it exported so well – not least, Premier League football. But there was far more to it than this obvious choice which undoubtedly has mass appeal across every continent worldwide. There was far more to it than yearning to watch the odd Premier League game from one of English football’s major grounds. Around March each year, I first got “the itch”; the itch for something familiar, something like clockwork that would arise annually and remind me not just how much I love the diversity of sport but remind me what time of year it was lest I forget.

As a Brit abroad, March meant I was missing the Cheltenham Gold Cup. It meant I was missing the University Boat Race and it meant that the following month I would be missing one of the world’s greatest endurance events, the London Marathon. This meant Spring was on the horizon and, best of all, sport was about to get serious in the UK.

Now, it wasn’t that I loved horse racing, loved rowing, or loved distance running for that matter; rather it was a sense of calendar familiarity. Much as we like change and improvement in the way we consume sport, we are also guilty of being creatures of habit. And just like the way the extreme Canadian weather reminds any Canadian of the changing seasons, it is the sporting calendar that reminds Britons of the point in the year they have reached. That calendar familiarity, and the excitement it brings, only improves as you reach the Grand National at Aintree – as national a sporting occasion as any in the UK, with office and family sweepstakes aplenty and a surge in amateur betting for the day. With the arrival of May, so comes the Snooker World Championships at the Crucible, signalling the first Bank Holiday weekend of the British summer, before the opening England Test Match at the Home of Cricket, Lord’s – the first time many of us really hear that unmistakable sound of leather on willow. The events then come thick and fast in June with Horse Racing spectacles such as Royal Ascot and the Epson Derby, the Henley Regatta and the “lawn tennis” season that takes sports fans from the Queen’s Club to Nottingham and from Eastbourne to Wimbledon. Then, it is golf’s turn with The Open, followed by one of the longest-running regattas in the world in Cowes Week.

To some, these events are affectionately and avidly known as The Season. To others, they are just part of the furniture of the British year, passing like the seasons. However, it is that very notion that they are ‘part of the furniture’ that breeds complacency. Just like the Superbowl is a distinctly American occasion, or just like the start of the ice hockey season is flagged in every Canadian’s diary, The Season (if we are to label it that) heralds a stretch of spectacular sport that those in the UK should relish and champion whether a sports fan or not. These are cultural events, they mark our calendar year along with Christmas, Easter, Summer Holidays and birthdays, but we should never be complacent – as, make no mistake, unless we continue to attend these events or watch and engage with these events on our televisions and devices, there is no saying they will be around forever, particularly in this increasingly fragmented age of choice in which we live. As we enter the main thrust of this eclectic but loveable litany of British sports events once again, take a step back, pinch yourself and remind yourself – whether a sports fan or a member of the sports business community – just how fortunate Britain is to have such a distinct stable of sporting spectacles. Just how lucky we are to witness such one-off sporting fixtures, and how, as members of the sports community, we should appreciate the opportunity we have to work at these fixtures. It is not to say they are better or superior to sports events in other parts of the world – though some do have an unarguably elite status in the international sporting calendar – but it is to say that they are unique and often idiosyncratic and many of them remarkably historical in their nature. Many of these events are so unique and unusual that in today’s more sterile and predictable world, their idea simply wouldn’t be born. These events are in many ways relics of a bygone era that have stood the test of time. Arguably, these events are stronger commodities than they have ever been given their collective identity as an antidote to modern-day, commercial sport. To survive, however, these events and their organizers have to strike that important balance between modernizing and maintaining the identity for which they’ve become so known and loved.

Having lived in different continents, countries and cultures, it has always struck me just how much the populations of other countries – often more than the British themselves – value some of these distinct British sporting calendar jewels with all the quirks, customs and baggage they bring; often watching with curiosity and bewilderment but with affection all the same. In an era when globalization has brought so much homogeneity to our world, people yearn for an iota of difference and distinction – and that extends to our sports events.

In Britain, it is time for people to appreciate The Season in all its glory. Unless The Season is fully valued, unless it is cherished the way it deserves, unless we preserve what makes this collection of events so great whilst at the same time allowing them to evolve and prosper commercially in a way fit for the modern age – that important balance – we may discover that, in this era of intense competition and dilution of audiences, this particular season may change forever.

Commonwealth 2.0: Communications That Gave The Commonwealth Games Its Mojo Back

As the dust settles on the XXI Commonwealth Games which took place in front of the sublime, sun-drenched beaches of the Gold Coast on Australia’s Eastern Seaboard, there has been time to reflect on the self-styled Games of Firsts.

Some commentators suggested that Gold Coast 2018 was something of a “do or die” moment for the Commonwealth Games brand. The question of relevance is one that has plagued the Commonwealth Sports Movement and its flagship event – the “Friendly Games” as they are rightly known – for some years now.

If the challenges of Delhi 2010 presented a period of contemplation for the future of the Games, and if Glasgow gave the Movement some stability once again, it was Gold Coast 2018, and the huge successes that resulted from this year’s event, that will go down in memory as the Games that – to coin a phrase used by one media publication recently – “gave the Commonwealth Games its mojo back”.

Whilst it is no bad thing for the event to retain its “Friendly Games” tag – for the athletes still enjoy and love the Commonwealth Games like few, or arguably any, other major multi-sport event worldwide – in today’s competitive sporting calendar, the Commonwealth brand was craving something much more than friendliness. It was craving relevance. And that is why, since I joined the Federation as its first Director of Communications and Public Affairs back in November 2017, we began the process of mentioning relevance at every corner we turned, in every conversation we had and to anyone that cared to wonder what this wonderfully eclectic, and often eccentric, sporting spectacle was really all about in today’s modern world.

Far from shying away from the question of relevance, we embraced it – in fact it was the central tenet of our Communications because we – the Commonwealth Sports Movement – had the important task of articulating why the Commonwealth Games remains relevant to an increasingly discerning public in an era when sport continues to change at a rapid pace.

As it happens, the Commonwealth Sports Movement and Commonwealth Games has a remarkable product – and has done for some time now – that, following the successful Gold Coast Games, is fast becoming the envy of the sporting world. However, up until recently, the Commonwealth Sports brand had not talked about what it stands for, had not articulated its unique, modern ‘sport with a social purpose’ identity. And that is why we made a concerted and targeted effort to talk about our relevance and talk about why, arguably, we were more relevant than ever before both as a sports movement and, more broadly, as a family of nations.

More relevant than ever before because, in this age of multi-million-dollar commercial sport, Commonwealth Sport is arguably unique in telling captivating stories of human success – sport as we used to know it – whether it be the first ever Jamaican Lawn Bowls Team, “the Reggae Rollers” taking part in the Games, British Virgin Islands’ Kyron McMaster winning the 400m hurdles and dedicating the win to his late coach who tragically died in Hurricane Irma which devastated the island; or Friana Kwevira from Vanuatu winning the small Pacific Island’s first ever Commonwealth medal with a bronze in the women’s F46 javelin.

Whilst the Commonwealth does not have a monopoly on such stories, it does arguably – given the construct of the Commonwealth with small states, island states, emerging nations and developing nations – tell them better than other global sports movements. These relatable “human” stories are something the public has relished in this era of big-business-sport and public scepticism with how some sporting institutions have been managed.

More relevant than ever because, as any sport will tell you today, it is essential to focus on the youth market: the athletes of tomorrow. With 2.4 billion people spread across 71 Commonwealth nations and territories (equivalent to 33 per cent of the world’s population), incredibly more than 60 per cent of those citizens are under the age of 30. The Commonwealth and Commonwealth sport, therefore, has a remarkable opportunity to focus its energies on using the power of sport to improve society for the more than 1.4 billion individuals under the age of 30 across the Commonwealth, whether they be in Nauru (with a population of just 10,000 people) or India (with a population of 1.2 billion people).

More relevant than ever because whilst other sporting movements worldwide have suffered from poor governance and have been driven chiefly by commercial deals and revenue over the need to demonstrate sport’s social purpose, it is the modern Commonwealth sports movement that has carved its own unique identity: sport with a social conscience and positive impact.

Whether that impact be through the promotion, protection and safeguarding of clean athletes; the publication of pre-Games and post-Games Human Rights Reports; by embracing the fair living wage; ethical and sustainable procurement, and by including community benefit clauses in host city contracts (take the recognition of indigenous rights through the Gold Coast 2018 Reconciliation Action Plan, for example); or by actively promoting LGBT rights and embracing diversity every single step of the way. These social-driven causes are the Commonwealth sport movement’s raison d’être in the 21st Century, and why Commonwealth Sport has stands apart from any other sports movement worldwide.

More relevant than ever because Commonwealth sport boasts a spirit that Olympic sport quite simply cannot. Whether it is Commonwealth sport’s more accessible or relatable ‘brand’ through the captivating human stories it tells; or whether it is the feeling of ‘belonging’ that Commonwealth countries have through their shared history, common values and vision for the future. Whatever it may be, the modern Commonwealth has a unique camaraderie, one that it hard to put your finger on unless you are part of the Commonwealth.

More relevant than ever before because there is a renewed focus on the Commonwealth. With a successful Gold Coast 2018 now behind us, Birmingham 2022 preparations underway, the high-profile Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) hosted by the UK Government last month, and the impending departure of Britain from the European Union – or “Brexit”, as it has become known – the Commonwealth has a spring in its step, a new-found energy that it has not had for years, decades even.

Combined, these reasons – and the communications push the movement has had over the past six months in the lead up to the Games – have put our family of nations back on the map. It has given the Commonwealth Games its mojo back.

The proof of the significant shift in profile for Commonwealth sport is in the numbers: since November 2017 the Commonwealth Sport brand has achieved an unprecedented 350% surge in media coverage (including features with the likes of The New York Times and CNN, organisations that were previously disengaged with the Commonwealth Games); and an 820% increase in social media engagement. These statistics speak volumes, as does the tone of the coverage which focussed heavily on the renewed relevance of the Commonwealth and Commonwealth sports brand, what it means in this post-Brexit world, and how (in the words of one media commentator) the Commonwealth “might just be on to something”.

As successful as the new ‘Commonwealth 2.0’ sports brand might now be seen, there should be no complacency. For what worked for Gold Coast 2018 with the focus on the renewed relevance of the Commonwealth will not necessarily work for the next edition of the Games in Birmingham. The Commonwealth Sports Movement now has a unique opportunity to build on the success of recent months and help Commonwealth Sport continue to grow in stature as it looks ahead to 2022 and beyond.

The future is an exciting one for a family of nations that is now no longer being written off. The Commonwealth dog has far from had its day. It is, to coin a phrase, more relevant than ever before.

Ben Nichols is the Director of Communications and Public Affairs for the Commonwealth Games Federation