AP Interview: WADA says Russia critics harming doping fight
Unnerved by public disputes and bullying claims, the World Anti-Doping Agency is urging critics of the decision to reinstate Russia to cease their distracting attacks.
WADA director general Olivier Niggli told The Associated Press it’s more beneficial to work with the country, as the three-year suspension of its anti-doping agency comes to an end, rather than forcing the government to confess to orchestrating the abuse of drugs and cover-ups.
The move proved so contentious that Olympic champion Beckie Scott quit her role on a panel reviewing Russia’s conditions of reinstatement. She later accused WADA officials of bullying her over her opposition at an executive committee meeting.
“There was a heated discussion,” Niggli confirmed to the AP. “Board meetings are there for arguments to be made and discussions to take place. It’s not abnormal.”
Scott, a Canadian former cross-country skier, felt belittled and targeted with inappropriate comments at the Seychelles executive committee meeting which she attended as head of WADA’s athlete committee — a position she still holds.
“I hope going forward ... everyone understands it is not a personal attack,” Niggli said. “There are disagreements on some points but between that and bullying there is a gap that I would not want to cross.”
WADA has asked for what it described as an independent expert to review recordings and transcripts of the debate ahead of the next meeting in Baku, Azerbaijan, on Nov. 14.
“We have acknowledged Beckie’s concerns,” Niggli said. “We have agreed to talk to her before our next meeting. I think that is what needs to be done among responsible persons who all want the same thing, which is to move the fight against doping forward. The irony of this whole discussion is, I am convinced, that all of us want to move things forward and I think it is actually rather sad that we cannot concentrate our efforts on that because of this kind of issue being raised.”
Throughout the telephone interview with the AP, Niggli referenced “political” attacks on WADA without specifying who was coordinating them.
“I am not sure what is the agenda, what is the endgame ... because I only see it as weakening the system globally, not just WADA, which is totally counterproductive,” Niggli said. “Now is the time to concentrate on the real work, stop the political arguments and move forward.”
Justifying the watchdog’s ongoing value, Niggli said those claiming “WADA is becoming irrelevant are simply part of political rhetoric with absolutely no substance.”
Athletes and national anti-doping agencies decried WADA for caving in even as Russia repeatedly declined to accept full culpability at the state level for a doping scheme that investigators said included dirty samples being switched for clean ones at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
“I wouldn’t say WADA was bullied by Russia,” Niggli said. “But there was discussion led and proposed by our compliance committee which was trying to find the best way forward in a totally independent fashion, not controlled by any of our stakeholders.”
Russia’s anti-doping agency (RUSADA) was suspended in 2015 after the first in a series of WADA reports that found top athletes could take banned drugs with near-impunity since RUSADA and the national laboratory would cover for them. Under the new arrangement, Russia has a deadline of Dec. 31 to provide access to data and samples from the former Moscow laboratory that was at the center of the plot.
Without the data, doping cases that came out of the Russian scheme could not be completed.
“I think rather than weakening the process, everybody should try to reinforce it so that we get the data and we can move forward with that which is only in the interests of clean athletes,” Niggli said. “If you look at this bluntly, it’s actually a win-win situation. ... Don’t forget Russian athletes are competing at the moment and obtaining this data will allow us to really clarify a number of cases with the missing pieces of a lot of the information.
“If it doesn’t work, if we don’t get the data, we are in a position to go forward and take new decisions on a different legal basis on Russia. Both camps are actually better than the status quo.”
Track and field was one of the few sports to impose a ban on Russians competing. Even though the IOC prevented Russia from entering a team at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in February, more than 160 athletes were still cleared to compete as “Olympic Athletes from Russia.”
WADA is willing to let Russia operate its own anti-doping program again despite mounting evidence about how Moscow retaliated against the initial punishment. The U.S. Department of Justice outlined last month how serving officers of the GRU military intelligence body hit the sports world with a wave of cybercrimes to access athlete data at anti-doping agencies that was published online by the “Fancy Bear” group.
“I would hope Russia would stop cybercrimes and other countries in every field of society and life,” Niggli said. “There is a huge political context which goes way beyond our mandate. I hope Russia will be a very good, responsible partner.”
Rob Harris is at www.twitter.com/RobHarris and www.facebook.com/RobHarrisReports