Asser International Sports Law Blog

Our International Sports Law Diary
The Asser International Sports Law Centre is part of the T.M.C. Asser Instituut

The World Anti-Doping System at a Crossroads

“One day Alice came to a fork in the road and saw a Cheshire cat in a tree. ‘Which road do I take?’ she asked. ‘Where do you want to go?’ was his response. ‘I don’t know,’ Alice answered. ‘Then,’ said the cat, ‘it doesn’t matter.”

Tomorrow the Foundation Board of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) will gather in Glasgow for its most important meeting since the creation of the Agency. Since the broadcasting of a documentary alleging systematic doping in Russian athletics by the German public broadcaster in December 2014, the anti-doping world has been in disarray. The various independent investigations (the Pound Report and the McLaren Report) ordered by WADA into doping allegations against Russian athletes have confirmed the findings of the documentary and the truth of the accusations brought forward by Russian whistle-blowers. Undeniably, there is something very rotten in the world anti-doping system. The current system failed to register a widespread, and apparently relatively open, state-sponsored scheme aimed at manipulating any doping test conducted in Russian territory. Moreover, it was not WADA that uncovered it, but an independent journalist supported by courageous whistle-blowers.

This is testimony to the innocuousness of WADA’s compliance checks. The Agency loves barking in public but hardly bites. In all fairness, it is simply not equipped to properly enforce the rules it has proudly devised and promoted. To adequately reset the system, the anti-doping community needs to acknowledge that until now WADA has been more of a PR stunt than a serious global anti-doping supervisor. The practical reality of anti-doping operations must be well understood to do so. The Agency drafts and adopts the World Anti-Doping Code and its complementary international standards but it is unable to control the concrete meaning that will be given to these provisions at a local level. In other words, the world anti-doping system as it stands is a glocal construct. It is dependent on the collaboration of local institutions (national governments, agencies, laboratories, but also sports federations) for its operation and thus takes different local meanings. Either the anti-doping community recognizes this pluralist reality and renounces the ideal of a level anti-doping playing field or the structure and operation of the system must be radically changed.

In recent weeks, key stakeholders have indicated their preferences. Both an influential group of national anti-doping agencies (often public bodies financed by national states) and the International Olympic Committee have called (here and here) for WADA to exercise more stringent compliance monitoring and to be given the proper authority to police the local anti-doping enforcers. This is the only way forward if the widely shared ideal of a level playing field is to be maintained. Yet, it also implies that the IOC (representing the entire sports community) and national governments will have to substantially increase WADA’s budget. This will most likely prove difficult at a time when governments across the globe are focusing on tightening their fiscal belts. The IOC, which derives huge economic revenues from its commercial monopoly over the Olympics (and its ideals), will probably have to put its money where its mouth is and unilaterally assume a substantial raise of WADA’s budget (from  $27,484,828 in 2015). To illustrate the scale of the expansion needed: in 2015 WADA had only 81 employees (compared with more than 11,000 athletes participating in the Rio Olympics). In these conditions, it can hardly monitor the particular workings of each national anti-doping agency and laboratory around the globe. The Agency will need to recruit in-house investigators in droves if it is to fulfil the responsibility that the IOC and NADOs want to endow it with. If WADA stays underfunded and understaffed, we will continue to witness just another example of organized irresponsibility. WADA would be tasked with an impossible mission in order to deflect the blame for failing to rein doping from other institutions that would have had the means to act but declined to do so.

To succeed in ensuring a more-or-less comparable enforcement of the World Anti-Doping Code around the globe, WADA will not only require more resources. It will also need to radically change its mind-set. The Agency must acknowledge that its anti-doping mandate is a Sisyphus-like task. It will never be fully achieved and to even approach achieving it will require the enrolment of whistle-blowers and the media. For this to happen, the former must be able to trust that they will not irremediably damage their professional/personal careers (the IOC’s treatment of Stepanova is an obvious counter-example) and the latter would need to have access to much more publically available data on anti-doping enforcement to know where to look. 

Finally, even if WADA were to morph into a trustworthy watchdog patrolling the globe to ensure a minimum level of compliance with its rules and standards, it would still need to rely on the disciplinary power of the IOC and the other Sports Governing Bodies to back-up its monitoring activities. The controversial decision of the IOC to let the Russian athletes compete in Rio, despite WADA’s recommendation otherwise, highlights the resistance it might face. Enhanced monitoring and compliance checks will have a deterrent effect only if they are followed-up by substantial sanctions.

The future of the fight against doping is on the table this weekend. Like Alice in Wonderland, the WADA is at a fork in the road, and to choose the right path it will need to decide first where it wants to go.

Comments are closed