It’s been a rough couple of years for the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), the worldwide governing body for track and field. Just ask Lamine Diack. The former IAAF president, who served from 1999 until 2015, was arrested in November 2015 on charges of corruption and money laundering. Further embarrassment came with the 2016 McLaren Report, which the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) commissioned in response to the prevalence of “state-sponsored” doping in Russia. The report found that high-ranking IAAF officials had known about such activities for a long time, and had failed to act.
“It was apparent to the commission that the institutional knowledge of the problems with Russia was far wider than has been acknowledged, and that the IAAF had displayed no genuine appetite to deal with the problems,” former WADA president Richard Pound said at the time.
Last week, however, it was WADA itself that was criticized for dropping the ball in the fight against doping.
In a decision that sparked widespread consternation, the world’s chief anti-doping organization officially voted to reinstate Russia’s national drug-testing agency, ending a three-year suspension. In effect, the country accused of orchestrating one of the most elaborate drug-cheating operations in sports history was being given the green light to once again run its own doping prevention program. That RUSADA’s suspension was lifted after only three years was galling enough (individual athletes often serve suspensions of four years for doping violations), but it was made worse by the fact that Russia hadn’t officially acknowledged the findings of the McLaren Report, which was a key initial criterion for reinstatement.
Travis Tygart, the head of the United States Anti-Doping Agency, put it bluntly when he spoke to the BBC: “WADA has sent one clear message to the world: we put the wishes of a small handful of sports administrators above the rights of millions of clean athletes and the dreams of billions of sports fans.”
It probably didn’t help that the WADA board made its decision during a meeting in the Seychelles, which gave the whole thing an air of out-of-touch extravagance. (Fighting the scourge of doping is tough, dirty work, so it only makes sense that one would need to rinse off in the Indian Ocean when it all gets to be too much.) Not that all WADA bigwigs thought that readmitting RUSADA was a swell idea. Cross-country skiing gold medalist Beckie Scott resigned from the WADA compliance review committee following the decision.
So what does the world’s premier drug testing organization have to say for itself?
On Monday, in an open letter responding to the backlash following its Russia decision, WADA’s president Sir Craig Reedie argued that RUSADA had acted in compliance with the majority of the criteria that WADA had initially set out. In fact, according to Reedie, aside from acknowledging the McLaren report, the only thing left outstanding was for Russia to grant WADA officials access to a Moscow laboratory that held testing samples of several Russian athletes who are still being investigated. Access to the Moscow lab is to be granted no later than the end of December, otherwise RUSADA’s reinstatement is a no-go. Reedie appears to be suggesting that WADA is playing hardball after all.
Given the sophistication of the Russian doping operation during the Sochi Olympics, which involved swapping out urine samples by successfully tampering with tamper-proof bottles, one wonders how trustworthy any data found in a Moscow lab is going to be.
But to dwell on that would be to miss a more significant point. In fairness to Reedie, his open letter stresses that WADA’s principal responsibility vis-à-vis Russia is to help develop a “robust” national anti-doping agency, but not to decide which international sporting events Russia gets to participate in.
As Reedie puts it:
“WADA has no powers to determine entries to sporting competitions, nor to apply sanctions to the doped. This is the responsibility of event organizers, international sports federations and national anti-doping organizations. If Russian athletes have been present in all sports and at every possible competition since 2016’s findings, with the honorable exceptions of athletics and Parasport, then that is the responsibility of those who govern the sports and events in question.”
Perhaps I’m reading into this a little too much, but Reedie seems to be intimating that it’s the International Olympic Committee’s own damn fault for allowing Russia to compete at the 2016 and 2018 Games, despite the country’s extensive doping violations. (It’s true that the roughly 170 Russians who competed earlier this year in Pyeongchang had to do so under a neutral flag as “Olympic Athletes from Russia,” but this felt less like a punishment and more like—as former WADA investigator Jack Robertson phrased it—a joke.) The statement is all the more remarkable when one considers that the IOC is one of the main funders of the WADA organization. Perhaps the words “independent agency” still mean something after all.
Reedie’s letter also includes a subtle compliment to the IAAF. Did you catch it? “The honorable exception of athletics.” Indeed, for all the controversy that it has incited recently, it often gets overlooked that the IAAF was one of the few governing bodies to heed the WADA recommendation in advance of the Rio Games that the Russian Federation shouldn’t be allowed to take part. In Rio, the IOC caved, but the IAAF did not. They should get credit for that.
What will the IAAF do now? The organization is adamant that, while it has taken note of RUSADA’s reinstatement, this doesn’t automatically mean that Russian track and field (RusAF) will be allowed back into the club. (It’s worth noting that on September 19, the IAAF Athletes’ Commission sent an open letter to WADA urging that RUSADA not be reinstated.) The IAAF has its own Russian task force, which as recently as July was still of the opinion that RusAF should remain suspended, despite making “significant progress” in revamping the Russian anti-doping infrastructure. (RusAF has, for example, allegedly taken steps to make it easier for regional members to suspend coaches who violated anti-doping rules.) Meanwhile, RusAF this week filed an appeal with the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) to force the IAAF to overturn its suspension. RusAF is arguing that because WADA, which had “essentially identical” criteria for Russian reinstatement as the IAAF, agreed to soften its stance, it is incumbent on the IAAF to do the same. So far, it seems the IAAF doesn’t feel the same way. The IAAF Council is scheduled to meet again in December, at which point they will update their position.
On the one hand, it would be reductive to say that the only way the IAAF can preserve its credibility is to uphold its Russia suspension in December. To take this position would be to deny RusAF a chance at reform. However, it wouldn’t be a good look if the IAAF followed WADA’s example and allowed to RusAF to entirely ignore the McLaren Report. For both WADA and IAAF this acknowledgement has been a line in the sand from the very beginning. Last week, WADA disgraced itself by moving the goalposts. The IAAF now has the chance to take a firmer stand. Let’s hope they use it.