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10 Dec, 2019 22:04

Absolute power: How WADA became the judge, jury and executioner of world sports

Absolute power: How WADA became the judge, jury and executioner of world sports

Russia’s four-year sporting ban has demonstrated the extent of the World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA) ability to decide the fate of entire nations in the world of sport. How did a single bureaucracy gain such absolute power?

Earlier this week, WADA banned Russia from hosting or competing in international sporting events for four years, over alleged manipulation of data from the Moscow anti-doping laboratory. The ban covers next summer’s Olympics in Japan and the FIFA 2022 World Cup in Qatar. It will affect thousands of professional athletes who never took any banned substances and only dreamed to win in a jersey with the Russian flag while their national anthem plays.

Russians will still be able to compete at international sports events as neutrals, but only if they get WADA approval – meaning that they now have to prove their innocence. Moscow called the WADA decision politically motivated “collective punishment” and is now preparing to challenge it at the top sports court. 

How was one single entity allowed to accumulate such power, defining the fate of entire nations in the world of sports, without an external system of checks and balances?

Dreams of clean sport

WADA owes its existence to the Lausanne Declaration, adopted in 1999 at the first World Conference on Doping in Sport spearheaded by the International Olympic Committee. The conference itself was largely a result of a massive doping scandal that rocked the sports world the previous year. At that time, several prominent professional cycling teams were caught doping, not as a result of then-existing drugs tests but thanks to police raids.

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Shattered by the doping revelations and tired of the existing chaotic doping prevention system’s inability to effectively fight cheating in sports, the IOC pleaded for the creation of a new universal body to lead and coordinate this work.

This plea was heard, and several months later led to the creation of WADA, an “independent International Anti-Doping Agency” granted unprecedented authority ranging from “expanding out-of-competition testing” and “coordinating research” of doping substances to “harmonizing scientific and technical standards” of anti-doping measures all over the world.

In the following years, the international community was still apparently fascinated by its dream of creating a sort of a God of fair sports – a body capable of sorting out all the doping problems on its own, while being free from any outside influence.

As a result, both sports organizations and national governments consistently focused on making WADA as independent as possible, while apparently paying much less attention to such things as the body’s internal transparency.

Four years after its establishment, the agency was given financial independence from IOC, which had poured cash into WADA since its inception. An elaborate funding system was devised instead, which saw half the WADA funding coming from IOC with the second half being provided by the national governments on the basis of special quotas, based on national GDP and population size.

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The World Anti-Doping Code – a document designed by WADA to become no less than the Holy Writ in the struggle to stop cheaters in sports – eventually granted the agency sweeping controlling powers over almost all other sports bodies. It regulated all major aspects of international anti-doping campaigns, from defining anti-doping rule violations to the list of banned substances and testing and investigative practices.

The code was broadly accepted by the international and national sports bodies, which apparently sought some clear guidelines in this field. It was adopted in 2003 and eventually signed by most international sports bodies and national sports federations, Olympic committees and anti-doping agencies, making WADA the virtual custodian of this anti-doping Bible.

A 2005 International Convention against Doping in Sport, adopted by UNESCO and eventually ratified by 180 states, formalized the Code rules for the governments, thus putting them under sort of moral pressure in terms of complying with the system essentially created by WADA.

Genie out of the bottle

Yet as WADA powers grew, so did the concerns about its suspected lack of transparency and flawed methods. The agency has turned into a judge, jury and executioner rolled into one, as it was essentially responsible for both defining which substances should be considered illegal for athletes, as well as for testing and investigating the very same athletes and eventually imposing sanctions against them.

This fact did not escape the attention of some scientists, including Erik Boye, a renowned Norwegian cell biologist and professor emeritus at the Institute for Biosciences of the University of Oslo. He argued that the WADA doping control mechanism has turned into an opaque system, hesitant to admit its mistakes. Others questioned WADA’s list of banned substances, arguing that it lacks scientific justification.

Meanwhile, the only existing way for the affected athletes – and entire nations for that matter – to dispute WADA’s decisions has been the Court of Arbitration for Sport. However, the CAS does not control WADA in any way, but simply handles the disputes between the agency and those it considered to be in violation of its anti-doping rules.

Even then, the court is in WADA’s power to some extent, at least according to Boye and those that share his view.

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“The lawyers residing in the panels of CAS hearings frequently meet with WADA-accredited scientists and develop a confidence in their expertise that may run counter to trusting opposing and unfamiliar expertise. This lack of power balance is not fair to the athlete,” the Norwegian scientist wrote in one of his opinion pieces on the matter.

By giving the agency a growing number of powers over the past few decades, the world of sports has unwittingly found itself entangled in its web. As WADA has arguably grown too powerful and unaccountable, neither the international sports bodies nor the national governments managed to create an effective oversight body.

The consequences were not long in coming.

Deus ex Machina

In 2017, the agency has seemingly tightened its grip on the sports world by linking the World Anti-Doping Code to its internally adopted regulation detailing the sanctions against any potential “non-compliant” entities.

In the blink of an eye, the foundation of the international anti-doping system that was once signed by some 660 sports bodies from all over the world – and later amended by a no less representative third World Conference on Doping in Sport – was changed by WADA’s own Foundation Board, to make it easier for the agency to go after suspected cheats, as one media outlet put it.

The agency that has for years been spared any outside oversight did not need approval of all those sporting bodies to do that. The amendments to the Code and a new Compliance Standard were simply passed by a 38-member board. WADA then simply mentioned this fact in one of its press releases, among other issues, as if it was not a big deal.

The board is of course supposed to represent the interests of each and every sports-related body around the world, as it is also formed in accordance with a complex system involving quotas for IOC, athletes and national authorities – but an approval by 38 people is in no way equal to support of hundreds of national and international sports organizations.

Thus the document dubbed International Standard for Code Compliance by Signatories was declared “a mandatory International Standard that forms an essential part of the World Anti-Doping Program” by WADA. Some of the measures envisioned by it were then promptly applied to Russia, setting a precedent for WADA virtually banishing an entire nation from international sports.

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The sanctions against Russia, as severe as they are, might not in fact be the harshest ones possible. The WADA document certainly does not hold back when describing various forms of punishment, including partial and total bans for a nation to participate in international sporting events and even nothing less than “suspension of recognition by the Olympic Movement and/or of membership of the Paralympic Movement.”

It may well turn out that the sporting fate of entire nations will depend on the 38 members of WADA’s Foundation Board, or the even less representative 12-member executive committee – as there is simply no one out there who can oversee, much less override, their decisions.

In its drive to help the sports world combat doping violations, the international community genuinely sought to create an ultimate authority to tackle all the doping-associated problems at once. By concentrating all that power in one place, however, they seem to have created not a god of fair sport, but something more like a runaway Frankenstein’s monster.

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