The World Anti-Doping Agency was accused on Wednesday night of failing clean athletes, being soft on Russian doping and “bullying and disheartening” those arguing for reform in an extraordinary emergency summit at the White House.
The event, which was attended by athletes, sports ministers and multiple national anti-doping organisations, also condemned Wada for its decision to lift the suspension on the Russian Anti-Doping Agency in September. And, in a significant development, the US – a country that provides $4.5m towards Wada’s annual budget of $34m – said “nothing was off the table” if the organisation did not reform.
One of the most powerful speeches of the day came from the British gold medal-winning cyclist Callum Skinner, who said Wada and the International Olympic Committee, which provides half of Wada’s funding, had let athletes down by refusing to heed calls for reform and greater input into decision-making.
“Who and what does Wada and the IOC truly represent? The number one answer should be the athletes,” Skinner said. “But what have we got? Two bodies that suppress the athlete voice, treating it with disdain and dismissing it as misinformed when they should be applauding athlete debate and engagement.
“Instead of backing the thousands of clean athletes around the world who have the right to compete on a level playing field they bow to politics over principle, earnings over ethics, autocracy over accountability. No one knows sport better than the athletes. It’s about time the leaders of the IOC and Wada remember who they serve. But accountability, transparency and independence unfortunately is not the status quo.”
Those at the summit described it as “raw and heartfelt” as a number of athletes aired their frustrations at Wada’s lack of success – and its unwillingness to listen to them.
The world steeplechase champion Emma Coburn said that “Wada has failed us. It has bullied and disheartened athlete voices.” The US 800m runner Alysia Montaño burst into tears as she recounted how she finished fifth at the London 2012 Olympics – behind two Russians who subsequently were revealed to have cheated. The 32‑year‑old, who is yet to find out whether she will be upgraded to bronze, said: “I don’t want time to run out on any more athletes.”
There were also criticisms from governments, with the Irish sports minister, Shane Ross, accusing Wada of “betraying its own principles” by allowing Russia back in from the cold. “Russia has been condemned widely internationally for what they’ve done in terms of promoting drugs within sport,” he said. “And Wada has been soft in readmitting Russia and has betrayed its own principles.”
Travis Tygart, the head of US Anti-Doping, described the summit as being as “monumental as the decision to form Wada in 1999”. He told the Guardian: “The time of it being business as usual with Wada being a puppet of the IOC has to stop. The athletes have come together, along with many governments and anti-doping agencies, to ‘say enough is enough’.”
Tygart said that while he firmly supported a global regulator in the fight against doping, Wada needed to heed the growing number of voices calling for reform. He said governments were also increasingly asking whether they were getting a return on their investment in Wada. “The White House is hosting this event because anti-doping is in crisis,” Tygart said. “The athletes recognise that. But instead of working with them, we are hearing excuses and attacks against people who want to reform the system.”
Sir Craig Reedie, the Wada president, is expected to give his response at a conference in London on Thursday. However, in a statement Wada criticised the summit for being one-sided. It said: “We welcome debate on this issue and we promote people’s right to discuss and promote reforms. But unfortunately it would seem as though only one side of the story was heard in Washington.”
Tygart said in response: “Contrary to what the Wada leadership would like to have people believe, Wada was invited, hence why Wada vice‑president Linda Helleland was in the room championing clean sport and listening to athletes. There were also Wada executive committee members – Edwin Moses and Clayton Cosgrove. Wada leadership is trying to pull the wool over people’s eyes once again.”
Tygart said: “There is nothing remotely one-sided about having the world’s athletes, national anti-doping leaders, government ministers and other clean-sport champions at an emergency summit to drive reform of Wada. Wada leadership, along with the IOC, are increasingly isolated with athletes and public opinion. Athletes are demanding change and change is coming.”
The summit on Wednesday reflected the increasing bitter split between Wada and the IOC on one side, and athletes, governments and national anti-doping agencies on the other. The acrimony is expected to intensify in the coming months, with Wada’s Foundation Board meeting in Baku on 15 November expected to be particularly lively.