To begin with, WADA has not really banned Russia from the Tokyo Games; it has merely banned its song and its flag. A melody and a swatch of cloth — that is the perfect gesture from an organization dedicated solely to cosmetics and buttocks-covering. Scores of individual Russian athletes still can compete — and rightly so, given that they may have been non-complicit, victimized by a state-sponsored system or simply unwitting violators of a nonsensical banned list bereft of any scientific worth. WADA is not fit to sort out the guilty from the bystanders. It’s just another bad actor.
More importantly, it is a tainted instrument, the results and judgments of which cannot be trusted. No one can be happy with Russia’s conduct — state doping is a human rights scourge — but WADA is simply not a legitimate adjudicator. It was never designed by the International Olympic Committee to go after powerful states or a state-sanctioned apparatus such as the U.S. Olympic Committee, which presided over a child molestation coverup that makes Russian doping look benign. The IOC founded WADA purposely to focus guilt on individual athletes — and shift attention away from guilty governing bodies.
Russia’s latest supposed transgression was to send “manipulated” or incomplete lab data to the doping agency. How is that very different from WADA’s own unethical conduct over its repeated lab failures? Or false-guilt travesties such as the meldonium controversy?
“It should be obvious that if anti-doping regulations are to work, they have to be evidence-based and based in science, and follow due process,” said Roger Pielke Jr., a University of Colorado scientist and author of “The Edge: The War against Cheating and Corruption in the Cutthroat World of Elite Sports.”
WADA fails on all three counts, with a broad and growing “body of evidence of sloppy science and questionable quality control” according to Pielke. There is the case of Erik Tysse, a Norwegian racewalker who was penalized in 2011 for using an EPO-like substance. A team of Norwegian scientists has since documented that the data from a WADA lab in Rome “lacked rigor, quality and reproductibility” and, more importantly, that WADA presented manipulated images of a urine test during the appeals phase, which seemed calculated to look more guilty.
There was the Saudi Arabian soccer player Alaa Al-Kowaibki, wrongly convicted by a WADA lab notorious for erroneous readings, who served a year’s suspension and lived with the tar of “doper” on his record for six years until 2017, because WADA didn’t bother to correct the record, even though it knew it was a false result.
Irish sprinter Steven Colvert was banned in 2014 though multiple experts found the WADA lab’s reading of recombinant EPO in his urine so bizarre that it must have resulted from sheer incompetence. When Colvert asked that his samples be retested given the conflicting findings, he found they had been destroyed. The nonsense goes on and on. More than a dozen of WADA’s 35 labs have been suspended or lost accreditation because of bad work.
Before you damn Russia, consider how WADA wreaked such reputational havoc over meldonium with no cause. More than 300 substances are on WADA’s banned list, and “there is very little evidence for performance-enhancement for most of them,” Pielke said. Meldonium is one of them, a heart medication that landed on the list via rumor and suspicion because Eastern European athletes were apparently using it en masse. Doctors in that part of the world believe heavy training can cause heart damage. There is not a shred of evidence that meldonium provides a performance benefit; on the contrary, doping experts such as Don Catlin say it has zero effect. Yet more than 100 athletes, many of them Russian, were branded dopers by WADA, based on nothing at all.
This is not science. Science is systematic, rigorous, empirical, observational, transparent, evidence-based and procedurally sound, with conclusions double-checked. This is a mess.
This spring, Pielke and colleague Erik Boye of Oslo University published a summary of the mess in an academic paper, “Scientific Integrity and Anti-Doping Regulation,” in the International Journal of Sport Policy and Politics. They wrote: “In the absence of reliable evidence, decision-making often becomes arbitrary, inconsistent and irreproducible, which threatens the integrity of anti-doping decision-making, the due process rights of athletes and the sustainability of anti-doping efforts.”
In place of this mess, imagine what would happen if we did the following: (1) declared a period of total amnesty during which a panel of fully independent scientists reevaluated WADA’s absurd list and its shoddy problematic laboratories; and (2) conducted a full-immunity survey of athletes as to what they take, when and why, and what deterrence methods they find effective and would like to see in place to regulate themselves and their peers.
This would not please the moralizing careerists who push anti-doping’s corrupt, dead-end system, such as USADA’s Travis Tygart, whose attitude has long been, “When in doubt, punish the innocent.” WADA and USADA need lots of guilty parties to justify their jobs and budgets. But it actually might get us somewhere in persuading young people not to take stuff.
The lack of scientific scruple at WADA (and its subsidiaries) can be seen in a simple fact: It has never published a doping-prevalence study. Prevalence data is critical for any evidence-based understanding of the problem: How many athletes are using performance-enhancers, and are WADA methods working? We don’t know, and neither does WADA, because it doesn’t ask, or when it does, it conveniently buries inconvenient data. “It’s willful ignorance,” Pielke said.
For example, in 2011, it funded anonymous surveys at two elite track and field events. Those surveys showed 57 percent of the athletes admitted to using a banned substance in the previous 12 months. WADA blocked the release of the results for years, perhaps understandably, because the numbers suggested WADA’s very profitable testing system isn’t working — at all. Only about 1 to 2 percent of WADA tests are positive. All the rest go uncaught. In other words, WADA may be failing at a better than 50-1 pace.
Without good science and real data, all WADA is doing is “a lot of shadow-chasing,” Pielke said.
It’s just a lot of meaningless arm-waving with flags.