The Athletes Voice: A Force for Change

By Travis. T. Tygart

Every sports fan has a favorite Olympic moment. Or maybe more than one. Unforgettable actions seared in our memory.

In the last year alone, we watched as Lilly King took a stand at the Aquatics Center in Rio, and as Jenny Simpson won bronze and used her moment in the sun to advocate for clean sport. We listened while Canadian cross-country skier Beckie Scott, at the height of the Russian doping scandal, had the courage to speak the truth to power when few others would.

As the CEO of the United States Anti-Doping Agency, these kinds of moments are more than just memories, they are the organization’s North Star – our guiding light.

But at the very core of USADA’s efforts lies a simple and fundamental truth: No matter how many times we defend clean athletes’ rights, we will never be the most influential voice in the room. Our impact, our message… it will never be as persuasive as the voice of the athletes we seek to empower.

That power and that responsibility, to demand change, is an athlete’s natural right. They are ones who leave everything on the playing field, and have the most to lose when someone tries to cheat them out of their moment – out of their livelihood.  

At the end of the day, it’s the athletes, not the “suits,” who billions of people around the world tune in to watch. It’s the athletes who leave us holding our breath.

Without them, there is no sport.

And without them, there is no true and lasting change.

History Repeats Itself

In the last half-century alone, global sport has witnessed the disturbing rise of two powerful state-supported doping programs. Decades ago, inside a walled-off East Germany, countless athletes were knowingly, and in some cases, unknowingly, doped in an attempt to win medals. Athletes’ health and wellness was disregarded, while clean competitors from around the world were robbed.

Yet, as time passed, the headlines soon faded and the Olympic movement carried on, growing into a financial juggernaut. For the public, the East German doping scandal became a punchline, a distant memory, or worse yet… something forgotten entirely.

However, for a small few, it proved to be a wakeup call, and in the decades following, anti-doping practices grew quietly stronger. The UNESCO International Convention Against Doping in Sport was established, as was the World Anti-Doping Agency – steps that helped put in to place a harmonized, globally accepted Code outlining anti-doping best practices. The situation improved further as national anti-doping agencies began to take shape: The science got better, precedents were established, individuals were held accountable, and the value of an independent model – free from the influence of sport – became increasingly apparent.  

But it wasn’t enough. Out of the ruins of the disgraced East German doping system rose an advanced state-supported doping program in Russia with unprecedented means of cheating. And despite the progress of the anti-doping system as a whole, its inability to detect and penalize Russia’s doping regime exposed holes in the system.

In fact, it took a courageous and dedicated group of whistleblowers, journalists, investigators, and independent anti-doping experts to eventually bring the Russian scandal to light. When the truth finally came out, over 1,000 Russian athletes were implicated in a doping program that was proven to have been orchestrated and supported by officials within the state. The breadth of the program was shockingly pervasive, spread across more than 30 sports from at least 2011 to 2015. Two Olympics Games were tainted by the scandal, and at the Summer Games in Rio in 2016, scores of athletes competed despite not having been subject to credible anti-doping programs.

Of the 82 medals Team Russia took home from London 2012, at least 15 of those medal winners were later found to have used PEDs. Two years later, at the Winter Games in Sochi, Russia’s methods of cheating went from abhorrent, to something out of a spy novel. By now you’ve probably heard the stories: Samples passed through walls, government intelligence officers, male DNA in female samples, and E-mails to the Russian Ministry of Sport looking for guidance on which doped athletes to protect, and which to sacrifice.

At the end of the day, despite mountains of evidence and vocal opposition from independent anti-doping groups – ourselves included – the IOC chose not to enforce meaningful sanctions against this institutionalized doping.

And let’s be clear, if you find yourself asking why any of this matters, talk to middle-distance runner Alysia Montano, who finished fifth in 2012 behind two athletes who were later found to have doped. Spend a few minutes with skeleton’s Katie Uhlaender, who missed out on a bronze in Sochi by .04 seconds to an athlete later tied to Russia’s state-supported doping regime. Ask Beckie Scott about her gold medal celebration, which occurred two years after her third-place finish in Salt Lake City. Take the time to call shot-putter Adam Nelson, who received his gold medal in a food court at the Atlanta airport, almost a decade after finishing second in Athens.

They’ll all tell you the same thing. When podium moments are stolen, they can never be returned. Not really.  

A Path Forward

We stand today at a defining moment in sport. But that moment is fading quickly, and it’s time we ask ourselves an important question: Since the depths of Russia’s state-supported doping system were brought to light, what has been done to prevent this from happening again?

I’ve said on numerous occasions that if the powers-that-be really wanted to hold people accountable and put clean athletes first, they could. I believe that. In fact, if they really wanted to, I believe they could do it today.

That’s what is so frustrating for us at USADA and for the athletes we serve. The solutions are not difficult. Finding political will, however, has proved to be. If tomorrow the International Olympic Committee made the decision to properly finance efforts to keep performance-enhancing drugs out of sport, and to remove themselves and other sports organizations from critical anti-doping functions -- the anti-doping landscape would be exponentially stronger. Sport involvement in these critical anti-doping functions is a glaring conflict of interest, and we know from experience that it’s too much to expect any organization to effectively promote and police itself. The fox can no longer be allowed to guard the hen house.

If we want reform, we must demand it, and over the past few months, national anti-doping organizations from around the world, with the support of athletes, have put forth a series of proposals designed to reform and strengthen the global anti-doping model.

The proposals are simple, yet effective:

  • Remove the fundamental conflict of interest that exists when anti-doping decisions are controlled by sport organizations.
  • Strengthen WADA through improved independence, transparency, and increased investment.
  • Increase WADA’s ability to investigate, and impose sanctions, so that countries which engage in state-supported doping are held accountable.
  • Exclude Russian sports organizations from all international competitions – with a uniform process for athletes to compete as neutrals until substantive progress in reform efforts are made; as well as enforce the removal of all major international competitions from Russia.
  • Provide the opportunity for athletes who have been robbed by doping to have a formal medal ceremony conducted at the Olympic Games or World Championship following the approval of medal reallocation.
  • Increase support for whistleblowers around the world.

In support of these reforms, nearly 100 track and field athletes signed a petition embracing the proposals.

In their letter of support, the athletes wrote: “It is not only our sport but the entire Olympic Movement that has been severely impacted by systematic doping violations by individuals, international federations, and government officials. The Olympic Movement is at a pivotal point where it can either decide to protect rights, the athletes, and the integrity of sport, or it can continue to disregard these glaring doping violations in the interest of financial incentives for a few.”

There is tremendous power in the athletes’ voice.

A Growing Chorus

Faced with administrative inaction after the release of the most recent McLaren Report documenting the scope of the Russian doping scheme across all sports, skeleton and bobsled athletes from a number of nations recently demanded a fair playing field by refusing to compete if the bobsled and skeleton World Championships were held in Russia in 2017 as scheduled.

Their voices were heard and their fortitude paid off - the event was moved.

Following the decision, U.S. women's bobsled pilot and clean sport advocate Elana Meyers Taylor publicly announced, "That's a monumental decision by the IBSF and the right move to protect clean athletes and to tell the world that state-sponsored doping is unacceptable. I am ecstatic about the decision."

Pressure from athletes also pushed the International Skating Union to move a speed skating event from Russia in March and drove Russia to remove itself as host of an International Biathlon Union World Cup meeting in Tyumen the same month.

More recently, at least 100 cross-country skiers united from eight nations to issue an open letter insisting their rights to clean sport be protected and demanding a stronger stance against doping by both the IOC and the International Ski Federation.

Winning the Fight

To every athlete in every nation: this is your moment. The stakes are high, courage is required, but your right to clean sport is at stake. The professional well-being of the next generation of clean athletes hangs in the balance. And the truth is, if we don't push, if we don’t win, we will likely find ourselves back in this same position, years from now, staring another state-supported doping system in the face…

Wondering why we didn’t do more when we had the chance.