OPINION: An Athlete-Led Anti-Doping Revolution?

December 17, 2018

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.