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'They favour authoritarian regimes over athletes' - Why the sports world is complicit in the Russia-Ukraine crisis

Rob Koehler, a former Deputy Director-General of WADA, on doping, abuses of power and the legacy of the Beijing Olympics.

Rob Koehler is a former Deputy Director General of WADA.
Rob Koehler is a former Deputy Director General of WADA.
Image: Alamy Stock Photo

IT’S OFTEN suggested that sports and politics should never mix, but time again the two have proven inseparable.

Books by the British sportswriter David Goldblatt such as ‘A Global History of Football’ and ‘A Global History of the Olympics’ are good places to start for anyone curious as to the degree of which the two intersect on a constant basis.

Throughout history, powerful regimes have used sport as a tool to promote their image and boost national morale, with the Berlin Olympics in 1936 one of the more notorious examples.

Sportswashing, defined as “the practice of an individual, group, corporation, or nation-state using sport to improve their tarnished reputation” is a relatively recent term, but it has existed in some form for a long time.

It is no coincidence that countries with some of the worst human rights records have played prominent roles on the sporting stage in recent times.

From Qatar and Saudi Arabia owning football clubs to Russia and China hosting major sporting events, evidence of sportwashing of late is hard to miss.

Of course, there has been some notable pushback following the invasion of Ukraine this week — on Friday, the International Olympic Committee encouraged all sports federations to cancel events in Russia or Belarus, while the Champions League final has been moved from St Petersburg to Paris – but generally sporting authorities have tended to adopt a lax attitude when dealing with these powerful nations.

Just as many in politics have long indulged or turned a blind eye to their ethically questionable behaviour, there are parallels too in a sporting sense.

There were allegations as far back as 2010 that Russia was operating a state-sponsored doping programme across the “vast majority” of summer and winter Olympic sports, and independent investigations subsequently backed up these claims.

In 2019, Russia were technically banned from competing at both the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and the 2022 Beijing Games. However, this punishment was heavily caveated. Russian athletes could still compete under the Russian Olympic Committee moniker, with minor differences, such as the refusal to allow the athletes in question to wear a Russian flag. The country’s national anthem could also not be played during the gold medal ceremony.

One individual who has been closer than most to this story is Rob Koehler.

The Montreal-based Canadian began working for the World Anti-Doping Agency in 2002 before stepping down as the organisation’s deputy director-general in 2018.

“I had oversight to the Russian anti-doping file and response for the roadmap back to compliance,” he tells The42.

“I didn’t see it through. I ended up leaving the organisation in August 2018 and September 2018 was when WADA allowed Russia back based on promises that they’d provide data without ever accepting the McLaren report (which suggested that more than 1,000 Russian athletes across 30 sports were involved in a doping conspiracy) and that they carried out institutionalised state-wide doping.”

Some of the work Koehler was most passionate about at WADA involved working with and advocating for athletes, and he has continued this practice in his new role.

Koehler is currently Director-General for Global Athlete, which he describes as “a grassroots movement by athletes and for athletes”. Their aims include balancing “the power that exists between athletes and sporting leaders” and securing “a more meaningful and representative athlete voice for all decisions in sport”.

shuai-peng-china-china-the-all-england-tennis-club-wimbledon-london-england-23-june-2014 Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai. Source: Alamy Stock Photo

There are other athlete groups in existence, including one under the IOC umbrella, but Koehler feels they are too compromised by other interests to create meaningful change.

“Time and time again, we’ve seen athlete organisations that are funded by people who end up taking control [rather than] the athletes maintaining control,” he explains.

Athletes’ lack of control has arguably never felt starker than in the current environment.

Koehler recently described the IOC as “not fit for purpose”. He cites how they handled high-profile controversies involving Peng Shuai, a Chinese tennis star who suddenly disappeared after accusing a high-ranking government official of sexual abuse, and Kamila Valieva, a 15-year-old Russian figure skater who was allowed to compete at the Winter Olympics despite revelations that she had failed a doping test at her national championships in December.

He is not the only one unimpressed. There has been widespread criticism towards the IOC in recent weeks. For instance, they were accused of a “publicity stunt” after arranging a video call with Peng Shuai and subsequently suggesting she was “safe and well”.

“Athletes want the Olympic Games, but the people running it no longer have the ability to organise it in a safe way,” says Koehler. “There are countless examples of that during these Games and leading into the Games. So you had the way that the IOC dealt with Peng Shuai and how they did everything they could to help the Chinese government make the sexual assault allegations go away by indicating everything was fine, by having conference calls with her, by bringing her to the Big Air competition, pretending everything was okay and everything isn’t okay. As a result, Peng Shuai retracted her statement due to the pressures being put on her. The IOC, instead of asking for a safe passage and an independent investigation, continued to play into Chinese hands.

“The way they dealt with Kamila Valieva, the 15-year-old figure skater, they didn’t challenge the decision, they just asked for clarification around the decision on a provisional suspension.

“Putting her back on the ice to allow her to compete was basically victimising the victim all over again. We saw what happened when she competed and after she competed. On top of that, they put her in a position of blame where the other athletes were not going to be provided with a medal in the team event or potentially the individual event because of her case. They have literally put that on a 15-year-old and shame on them for doing that.

“We continue to see how the IOC brings in billions in revenues and refuses to provide any compensation to athletes. On top of that, they take away their image rights and likeness rights. So they have to sign away their image rights at the Games, they’re required to sign waivers where they accept all risks.

“For a multi-billion dollar industry, they can’t continue like that. The breakdown of the anti-doping, the court of arbitration for sport, all of which the IOC had a full stranglehold of control over the World Anti-Doping Agency and the Court of Arbitration for Sport. They all lack independence and transparency and who does this affect the most? The athletes. They’re the ones that lose out constantly because of the lack of transparency and independence.

“Time and again, athletes have been calling for reforms of these organisations. They’ve been calling for a 50:50 partnership and continue to be cast aside. So if you’re not willing to bring your number one, most important piece of the puzzle, the athletes, into an equal partnership, you’re no longer fit for purpose.”

beijing-china-15th-feb-2022-kamila-valieva-of-the-russian-olympic-committee-roc-competes-in-the-womens-single-skating-short-program-at-the-beijing-2022-winter-olympic-games-at-the-capital-indoo Kamila Valieva of the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) competes in the Women's Single Skating Short Program at the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games. Source: Alamy Stock Photo

He adds: “The big picture is the fact that the IOC awarded the Games to China, I think, is a clear sign that they’re more interested in financial benefits than the benefits of athletes. By putting athletes in that position and bringing them to China — their record of the ongoing abuse to their people, to genocide, to restricting and limiting the right to freedom of expression within the country and placing athletes in these positions, it favoured stakeholders’ interests over athletes’ interests, and that’s continued in the approach by the IOC where they favour authoritarian regimes over athletes’ well-being.

“It also showed us that the IOC will always favour those with money and stakeholders over fundamental athlete rights. That was shown very clearly when the Beijing 2022 organising committee openly threatened every athlete at the Games, that should they exercise the right of freedom of expression that may be against Chinese law, which is very opaque, that there may be consequences. That was an open threat to athletes. The IOC did nothing to demand that statement be retracted. They continued along with their party line in terms of rule 50 that they have — if athletes speak up against the laws of the country, they will be suspended.

“So you had two organisations — the IOC and Beijing 2022 who should be there to protect athletes, openly threatening athletes. I think that speaks volumes of where athletes stand in this movement.”

While some aforementioned developments have taken place since then, speaking on Wednesday, Koehler was left unimpressed by the reaction in some quarters to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, citing, in particular, the response it elicited from the Global Association of International Sports Federations, otherwise known as SportAccord.

“I can tell you that my jaw dropped to the table when I saw a press release from SportAccord saying that they were continuing to host the SportAccord conference (described as a “world sport and business summit”) in Russia.

“That is so far out of touch with reality when you have the world governance putting sanctions on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, but sport makes a statement saying it’s ‘business as usual’.

“It’s a clear sign that Russia continues to win a power struggle and really take over the control of sport internationally. We’ve seen it by how they undermine the integrity of the anti-doping, by putting pressure on the three organisations: IOC, WADA and CAS to have watered-down sanctions.

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“We’ve seen how everyone is afraid to take a stance against Russia and this is another example. It can no longer be acceptable. International federations and sporting organisations should be announcing immediately that all events are being suspended in Russia until the invasion has ceased, but [in some cases] they’ve done the opposite, it’s jaw-dropping really.”

peking-china-31st-jan-2022-a-cameraman-films-the-olympic-rings-on-the-ice-surface-in-the-national-indoor-stadium-the-fan-olympic-ice-hockey-games-will-be-held-here-the-beijing-winter-olympics A cameraman films the Olympic rings. Source: Alamy Stock Photo

Viewership of the Winter Olympics this year dropped to a record low and Koehler believes people are being put off by the controversies and baggage that is increasingly associated with the event.

“Time and time again, we’ve seen scandal followed by scandal due to the lack of reforms. 

“And I think people are frustrated. The Olympics have lost their special place in people’s hearts because they continue to favour their stakeholders and money over basic fundamental competition and athlete rights. So I think that’s where there must be a need and desire to change. 

“The public is seeing it now because it’s being exposed. The human rights organisations are exposing it, the athletes are exposing it and I don’t think any of these issues are going to go away.”

Whether meaningful change can occur is another matter, however. Koehler believes a strong and genuinely independent athlete association can have a big influence, while he also says sponsors “need to step up and demand immediate reforms that put athletes at the centre”.

Cynics may feel sport is forever destined to be undermined by politics and harmful influences, but Koehler by contrast is an optimist, pointing out several instances where athletes have become emboldened and successfully fought for change.

“I’ve used the saying before — something good always comes from something bad. We’ve seen that with the pandemic. When the IOC didn’t want to postpone the Tokyo Games [in 2020], what happened in the weeks before the world was shutting down, they were telling athletes to continue to keep training and business as usual. They couldn’t do it. So the athletes stood strong together. It took a three-day period for the IOC to immediately suspend the Games. So we’ve seen athletes go: ‘Hold on, we may have a little bit of power here, with our voice and our stance.’

“We’ve seen that time and again, leading into the last year, rule 50 [which forbade athletes from any form of political protest at the Games]. While it hasn’t been fully rescinded, it’s been relaxed so athletes can make political statements at media conferences. They did wear rainbow bands for gay and lesbian rights. When women were told they couldn’t bring their breastfeeding babies to Tokyo because of the pandemic, the athletes stood up and said: ‘Absolutely not.’ And the IOC had to reverse the decision.

“Women’s handball in Norway said ‘we’re no longer wearing bikinis to compete in sport’. The IOC and the international federation had to rescind that rule.

“Belarussian athletes standing up and asking for a suspension of the Belarussian National Olympic Committee. While they haven’t been fully suspended, they were partially suspended.

“The Iranian athletes continue to speak up and demand that their Olympic committee be suspended.

“So I’ve constantly seen athletes forcing change. And that is a movement that is new and it is of the last two or three years and I don’t think that’s going to go away.

“What athletes like to see though is moving away from that forced change, because that forced change is going to continue to hurt the Olympic brand. And that’s where forced change needs to [become] an equal partnership to grow, understand and make sport a better place for athlete rights and for the Olympic brand itself. That’s where we see it moving — it needs to be a partnership.

“It’s going to be an adversarial relationship [with the IOC] until that happens because athletes have found that they do have the ability to influence change.”

About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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