Reinstating Russia to global sporting stage a betrayal of clean athletes, says WADA's ex-lead investigator

The World Anti-Doping Agency’s recent decision to reinstate Russia following the largest cheating scandal in the history of sport is a betrayal of clean athletes, writes the organisation's former lead investigator Jack Robertson.

His views do not necessarily reflect those of ITV News.

The current administration of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) has fatally failed in its mission to safeguard the World Anti-Doping Code - the rules that govern clean sport - and in the process betrayed clean athletes.

WADA’s sole reason for existence is to safeguard the rights of clean athletes to fair competition, and yet that has become a secondary concern, when it is a concern at all.

WADA’s recent decision to reinstate Russia to the playing field of global sport following the largest cheating scandal in the history of sport, and without Russia fulfilling even a bare-bones list of requirements, has rightfully brought the ire of both clean athletes and the global anti-doping community, and has forever tarnished its reputation.

Unfortunately, this most recent decision is in keeping with WADA’s culture in recent years as it responded to revelations about Russia’s state-sponsored doping program. As usual, WADA took the cowardly step of appearing to pass the buck to an expert committee that never had any real independence and predictably recommended that Russia be reinstated.

The preferential treatment that WADA affords Russia has been apparent from the outset. A 2014 documentary by German television station ARD first revealed shocking allegations of unparalleled Russian doping protocols - medical regimen forced on athletes in a manner not seen since the East German doping operation that left athletes with lifelong health problems.

Despite the ARD revelations, it took external pressure to compel WADA President Craig Reedie, who is also an International Olympic Committee board member - a clear conflict of interest - to launch an investigation to determine the truthfulness of the allegations.

His first instinct was to handle the matter internally with his colleagues in the Russian Sport Ministry, the very same ones who were suspected of overseeing the Russian Doping Machine. (I know this, because I am the investigator who was assigned to run the investigation, after media attention forced Reedie’s hand.)

Instead of investigating immediately, Reedie directed the WADA Communications Department to monitor international press coverage and determine if the documentary coverage would (he hoped) lose traction and fade away.

Reedie’s reluctance was apparent throughout the investigation, like when he authored a consoling email to the Russian Sport Ministry, which later became public.

WADA President Craig Reedie during the Pyeongchang Olympics. Credit: AP

That’s like the chief of police sending a private note to the target of an active investigation telling them he’s sorry, and not to worry. It is unconscionable, and would never be accepted outside of the pitiful state of affairs that is global anti-doping. At this point, it is no surprise that a journalist noticed that Reedie, on his wall at home, has a framed picture of himself with Russia’s president. (And not on one of those crime-solving corkboards.)

When Reedie was ultimately compelled to authorize an investigation, it corroborated what the ARD documentary alleged, and then some. At a November 2015 press conference, WADA’s Independent Commission Chairman (IC) Dick Pound announced findings of a Russian State Sponsored Doping Program on a scale never seen previously.

Rather than seek a course of appropriate punishment as indicated by its own dictate, WADA put aside its mission and partnered with Russia to take necessary measures that would enable Russian athletes to compete in the 2016 Rio Summer Games. It was an affront to justice, and pitted clean athletes from around the world against athletes who were known to have been recently doping. This action in itself supported clean athletes’ claim that WADA has now become the ‘fox watching the hen house.’

In response to time concerns, the investigation centered on Russian athletics. However, there was strong and compelling information revealing Russian doping was not confined to athletics but probably included all summer & winter sports.

Berlinger Special BEREG-Kits with A and B sample bottles were used in 2016 for human urine doping testing. Credit: AP

At the November 2015 WADA Executive Committee meeting, WADA Athlete Representative Beckie Scott shared her concerns that Russian doping included other sports and athletes, and requested a follow up investigation to address these allegations. In my opinion, Reedie rudely dismissed her request and said he would look into the matter himself to see if further investigative measures were necessary. I can comfortably say Reedie did no such research.

I was the lead WADA investigator into Russian state-sponsored doping, and he never requested so much as a briefing. In fact, the head of WADA never once contacted me in relation to the entire investigation. I was not aware of any follow up measures at all until after more allegations were made public in a New York Times interview of former Moscow anti-doping lab director Grigory Rodchenkov.

Rodchenkov revealed doping was rampant in all Russian sports, and that his lab had swapped dirty urine samples for clean ones through a “mousehole” in the lab wall during the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Top WADA officials acted surprised by Rodchenkov’s admission, but the reality is WADA had been aware of these allegations since July 2015.

Again, an investigation spurred by media pressure confirmed the allegations, and then some. Nonetheless, Russia was allowed to send one of the largest delegations in the world to the 2016 Rio Games and again for the 2018 PyeongChang Games. Athletes who had been identified as doping in the investigation competed, and Russia suffered no real punishment.

Instead, the IOC imposed ridiculous and meaningless sanctions, like mandating that the Russian team could only wear two national colors on its uniforms, as opposed to all three—red, white and blue. Russian athletes were only banned from athletics in Rio, and that was by decision of the IAAF, not WADA or the IOC.

This latest decision to reinstate Russia is a continuation of Russian favoritism by WADA and the IOC. I believe with certainty WADA would have crucified a lesser country given lesser circumstances. So, what exactly did Russia do to deserve such leniency? Russia never admitted guilt, never apologized, continually lied, withheld and destroyed evidence, threatened whistleblowers, made counter-accusations, was uncooperative in testing athletes, hacked into WADA’s computer databases and revealed sensitive athlete data, and continued to dope its athletes.

Russian power and financial influence bypassed warranted punishment and a mandated road map of requirements, and thereby strong-armed their entry into Rio & PyeongChang.

WADA has become what it was originally created to rid - an organization inconsistent in fairly administering anti-doping rules & penalties that govern sport.

The lone bright spot is that WADA’s unwillingness to protect clean sport is now so obvious that clean athletes are being pushed to take up arms, so to speak, and push for change. For example, as soon as the decision to reinstate Russia was made public, American medalist Emma Coburn tweeted an open letter to the president demanding transparency about the thus-far opaque decision.

Every clean athlete should join her, and the whistleblowers who gave up their livelihoods, their safety, and in some cases fled their homes to expose Russia’s doping operation.

I have watched as WADA labels outspoken athletes “well meaning” and under the influence of “politically motivated” individuals as if these athletes are naive children, not the very people whose professions and dreams are being tainted and stolen.

To those athletes, I say: WADA does not care. If WADA were serious about listening to you, would they currently be considering changing the WADA presidency requirements in a calculated move to prevent an athlete advocate from seeking the office? My advice to athletes, be uncompromisingly committed in your determination to bring change. WADA will, in time, offer weak and diluted compromises with the intent of giving the appearance of change, while maintaining the status quo. With Reedie, the IOC and the international sport federations have a man who openly admits to a desire to avoid confrontation, no matter the cost.

Instead of fomenting change, Reedie has attacked the character of USADA CEO Travis Tygarts, who has had to fulfill WADA’s role as the leading voice and advocate of clean athletes. Tygart is not politically motivated, but rather driven by his passion for protecting clean athletes. Anyone who truly knows Travis would say the same. What is missing but desperately needed at WADA is someone with the integrity, moral fiber and the passion of Tygart or former Paralympic President Sir Phillip Craven.

Lance Armstrong was stripped of his seven Tour de France titles. Credit: AP

This is not meant as an endorsement of either of these fine men to replace WADA’s current standing president, but rather to say that their personal character traits and leadership abilities are what should by sought. During USADA’s investigation of the USPS Cycling Team, Lance Armstrong used powerful political and sport connections in an attempt to bring down USADA and Tygart. Politically speaking, there was absolutely nothing to be gained by taking on Armstrong, only great risk. I asked Tygart if he felt the investigation was worth the risk of losing his job and the possible dismantling of USADA that would occur if it failed, or perhaps even if it succeeded. Tygart told me that “doing the right thing is always worth it.”

In contrast, as I was beginning my official investigation against Russia following the ARD Documentary, I was told I finally got “my way” for receiving resources to conclude the Russian investigation. Instead of a pep talk about the value of the undertaking, I was told it would be my head on the chopping block if the investigation failed. I worked long days and all weekends to ensure it did not. Not because of the threat, but because I was vehemently appalled by the Russian doping allegations and I did not want to let clean athletes and whistleblowers down.

To use an analogy, WADA’s top leaders and executive board are like a diaper, badly in need of changing. The WADA Executive Board, is conflicted. Through their membership within the IOC or International Sport Federations, Board members priorities can and do oppose the mission of WADA .

It is my opinion that any responsible, legitimate board would have long ago removed and replaced the standing president and director general. What is required are leaders who do not need media polls to guide their decisions or outside pressure to do the right thing and to listen to the athletes, their true stakeholders. Leaders who know on which side of the fence they should be standing, that side which is independent of the influences of the IOC and international sport federations. The current leaders had their opportunities to do the right thing and failed, repeatedly. Athletes, the power to reclaim your sports rests in you and the time for change is now.