Opinion It”s crucial to strengthen the World AntiDoping Agency

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Earlier this month, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) convened a closed-door summit to debate the future of the global anti-doping regime. It was prompted by revelations, on the eve of the Rio Olympics, of state-sponsored doping in the Russian sport system.

Yet, the subtly scripted IOC declaration emerging from its four-hour conclave said nothing about halting those crimes or bringing their perpetrators to justice. Instead, the IOC demanded a fundamental restructuring of the Montreal-based World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), the institution that had the audacity to investigate and expose the crimes.

WADA had called — in vain — for the IOC to ban Russia’s team from Rio. In the months since, the agency has endured a campaign of vilification by political actors and cyberattacks by hackers. More insidiously, too many of WADA’s ostensible sport partners appear to feel that it has betrayed them by unmasking ugly truths.

In this clash between the high ideals of sport and the low ruthlessness of politics, WADA holds the ethical high ground, but is catastrophically outmatched in its material resources. Prior to the IOC summit, WADA drew together in Lausanne a broad range of figures from high-performance sport, to give them our candid analysis of how the agency should proceed. They invited me as one of several independent voices, in my capacities as a former international athlete and as CEO of the Global Organization of Parliamentarians Against Corruption. I left those discussions with a sense that the mismatch between WADA’s colossal mission and its small budget is flatly absurd.

From an athlete’s perspective, we need a powerful WADA to protect us from exploitation. Often, the only reward for ethical athletes is to suffer the injustice of being cheated of our rightful victories. On the other side, athletes who are enabled or coerced into doping are eventually left damaged in body and broken in mind.

From a global perspective, we need an independent WADA to thwart subversion of international affairs. For better and for worse, sport is now a key instrument of statecraft, along with diplomacy, defence and intelligence. To the extent that sport becomes captive to political corruption, it becomes an instrument to prop up tyrannies and kleptocracies, an instrument to marginalize democracy and the rule of law. It becomes a weapon against the common interests of the human race.

I feel certain that WADA’s willingness to expose state-sponsored doping in Russia will come to be seen as a seminal victory in the struggle for sport integrity. Yes, WADA could have moved sooner and faster. However, this should not blind us to the fact that before WADA was created, no one ever moved against the chamber of horrors of the East German sport system.

But it would be folly to believe that WADA could strike a blow against some of the most powerful figures in sport and politics, without those figures striking back. They have done so, and they will continue to pummel WADA until it perishes or prevails over them.

The outcome will hinge on whether WADA will be able to rely upon the support of governments, athletes and the IOC.

I take some comfort in the fact that the IOC has insisted that it supports WADA’s independence and capacity to prosecute its mandate. However, I must confess that is not my impression, based on harsh public statements this summer by IOC officials. 

If there is any justice to this impression, then I should offer the IOC some simple advice: not everyone who stands up to you is your enemy, just as not everyone who flatters you is your friend.

Ultimately, WADA and the IOC will be one another’s salvation, or undoing. The only people who would prosper from a confrontation would be those who trade upon doping in sport.

Akaash Maharaj is CEO of the Ottawa-based Global Organization of Parliamentarians Against Corruption (GOPAC). He was a triple gold medallist for Canada at the International Championships of Equestrian Skill-at-Arms.