Exclusive OpEd for Around the Rings
By Ursula Papandrea
As the doping issues of recent years have turned into crises and full-blown scandals, it has been a catchphrase to adopt a tough-on-doping public stance. The examples are aplenty; at the global, national and sporting level, leaders, publicly at least, adopt a zero tolerance to doping rhetoric, yet as we have seen time and time again, the actions have not always met the words.
We have seen it in our own sport of weightlifting, in response to the shocking allegations, and ultimately findings - through the McLaren Report - of doping and corruption first revealed by German television station ARD in January 2020. Yet, far from seeing it as optional to react with the strength we did, it was imperative - indeed, it was our duty and responsibility as a then-member of the IWF Executive Board— to be vociferous in our condemnation of the issues that, as proven through Professor McLaren’s Report five months later, were so utterly devastating for our athletes.
There has been some progress with weightlifting’s anti-doping program in recent years. We must recognize the progress made by the 2017 Clean Sport Commission, headed by Richard Young, one of the primary authors of the WADA Code. After that Report, the IWF did eventually hand over the grand majority of its anti-doping program to the Independent Testing Agency (ITA); this independent approach is a vast improvement. Then, only last week, the IWF Executive Board took the welcome, but overdue, decision to restore Article 12 of the IWF Anti-Doping Rules to a threshold whereby three anti-doping rule violations in a single year would trigger suspension proceedings, instead of four. Whilst the Board’s decision to restore the threshold is a nice reversal, we must reinstate the entirety of Article 12 as suggested by the ITA.
There can be no doubt that the findings of the McLaren Report have left our sport’s reputation in a poor state; however, from threat comes opportunity and the chance to redeem ourselves in the eye of the sporting world. It is time for weightlifting to acknowledge and take full accountability for the actions that have led to the IWF's and weightlifting's poor reputation, because we cannot allow doping countries, or those who support them, to continue to risk our future.
"From threat comes opportunity and the chance to redeem ourselves in the eye of the sporting world."
And to use this lever to transform our sport - to go from zero to hero - we wouldn’t be alone, because other sports have trodden this path before. And they’ve trodden it well. Take athletics, for example. A sport besieged by issues of Russian doping, intertwined with corruption as proven though the World Anti-Doping Agency’s Pound Report in 2015; five years later, they have the well established and highly regarded Athletics Integrity Unit that has, quietly and diligently, helped the sport regain its reputation – amongst federations, other sports, the commercial world, and, yes, the athletes, too.
Then there’s biathlon. The International Biathlon Union was in some trouble in 2018 - as the recently-released External Review Commission Report has fully confirmed, with corruption and cover-ups endemic in the sport - and now it has a new governance structure, strategic plan and its own Biathlon Integrity Unit. Both these stand as examples of sports that can benefit from not only recovery, but improvement, too.
These two sports, and others, have proven the integrity unit model works – offering distance and independence between the sports promotion arm (the Federation) and the policing arm (the Integrity Unit). This is why I was clear in my 100 Days of Reform plan last week, and my full Manifesto earlier this week, that, if I’m elected President, the IWF will launch an independent Integrity Unit to receive and deal with reports of, yes, doping, but also broader threats to our sport, such as match fixing, corruption, illegal betting and more. It’s why we must take the tough-on-doping position as more than the lip service. It’s why under my leadership, we will take concrete actions to match the words.
"Other sports have proven the integrity unit model works – offering distance and independence between the sports pro-motion arm (the Federation) and the policing arm (the Integrity Unit)."
The IWF Executive Board’s recent decision to restore the threshold in Article 12 of IWF Anti-Doping Rules is a small step forward, yet to effectively tackle the scourge of doping, we must go much further. That is why, if elected as the next IWF President, we will restore the mutual trust and respect of both the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and Inter-national Testing Agency (ITA). And it’s why, to ensure we have the strongest deterrent and punishment for offenders, I will, if elected President, ask all newly elected board members to voluntarily sign an agreement that if any one of our countries produces more than one positive for any anabolic substance within a 12 month period, that Board Member will then step aside from the Board for a period of at least 12 months - or, for a period of 6 months for a non-anabolic banned substance - in order to engage in an intensive educational process to be completed within their country. We must be diligent and insist that all board members take full responsibility, not just the athletes.
Beyond tackling systematic doping as it currently exists, we must do more, we must go further so that in the future we are not just seen as better at handling doping in our sport, but as a progressive pioneer in the fight for clean sport – for clean athletes. Our purpose for anti-doping must not just stop at the usual three objectives of detection, deterrence and prevention; rather, we must be ambitious and add a fourth: innovation. In years to come, if I am fortunate enough to be elected President, my team will ensure the Federation works closely with the anti-doping authorities, pioneers and progressives, to always explore new ways to keep our sport clean. We want the IWF of the future to be at the heart of the anti-doping conversation, and embracing the wide range of tools modern-day anti-doping offers, which goes far wider than testing. Increasingly, it is investigations, whistleblowing, the Athlete Biological Passport and education; and it is being open-minded to new, innovative testing techniques and methods that make our sport a fair and healthy place to compete. We will encourage the IWF, national federations and all stakeholders in our sport to embrace a visionary, progressive approach to anti-doping – because not only then will we restore trust amongst athletes and our core supporters, but we will welcome newcomers to our sport, be they the weightlifters of tomorrow, new fans and new commercial partners and sponsors, too.
"Our purpose for anti-doping must not just stop at the usual three objectives of detection, deterrence and prevention; rather, we must be ambitious and add a fourth: innovation."
Our commercial survival depends on us addressing doping wholeheartedly, and not seeing this as a threat but as the greatest opportunity for the IWF in living memory. These two facets of our sport - anti-doping and commercial prospects - are not mutually exclusive, they are inextricably linked. Because, without strong anti-doping actions to meet words, we will not harness the new commercial opportunities, the new sponsors and new partners that our sport so badly needs. After all, clean sport means new inward investment for weightlifting, and new inward investment for weightlifting means benefits for all our National Federations. From additional commercial revenue at prize money at your events, to additional funds for event production, not to mention the additional money that can be used to support the development of federations; the benefits of clean sport are endless.
With challenge comes opportunity, and with this once-in-a-generation opportunity for our sport to change and repair its battered reputation, we have a choice: we can choose the zero-tolerance-on-doping path that proves attractive to new sponsorship and investment in our sport which will benefit all national federations, or we can turn our back on that path. Until we, as the international weightlifting community, embrace that fact, we will be faced with an era of stagnation and a reputation that repels prospective partners and inward investment.
"These two facets of our sport - anti-doping and commercial prospects - are…inextricably linked. Because, without strong anti-doping actions to meet words, we will not harness the new commercial opportunities, the new sponsors and new partners that our sport so badly needs."
At this pivotal time for our sport, the message to my friends and partners in our sport is a simple one. Let’s be under no illusions, doping is still the number one threat to our sport. We must have the courage to face this threat and take control of our future. International weightlifting’s road to redemption rests with us becoming an anti-doping pioneer, and so, under my Presidency, we will see this as an opportunity for the good of our athletes; an opportunity that will be embraced from day one. We have no time to waste.
Ursula Papandrea is running for IWF president. She served as interim IWF president from January to October 2020 before being ousted by the IWF executive board. She previously was USA Weightlifting president. She was a two-time national champions during an athletic lifting career that began in 1987. She has more than 20 years of coaching experience at national and international levels.
Homepage photo: USA Weightlifting
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