Commentary

Olympics put WADA in crisis mode

Updated: November 22, 2013, 3:36 PM ET
By Shaun Assael | ESPN.com

John FaheyAlexander Joe/AFP/Getty ImagesJohn Fahey, outgoing president of WADA, has expressed concern over the agency's inability to compel various other bodies to act when it comes to drug testing.

The World Conference on Doping in Sport that was held in Johannesburg last week was supposed to show how far the world's performance-enhancing drugs police have come in the 24 years since the World Anti-Doping Agency was launched.

Instead, it turned into a fiasco when WADA officials revealed that the only Russian lab equipped to do drug testing for the Olympic Winter Games in Sochi is running about as smoothly as the Obamacare website.

Montreal-based WADA, which runs on a $26 million annual budget and creates the drug code that all nations follow, called the conference so a thousand Olympic delegates could vote on important revisions to its rules. The changes include upping first-time penalties for cheaters from two to four years and putting more emphasis on investigations instead of easy-to-beat drug tests. 

But John Fahey, WADA's outgoing president, also spent the week wanly lurching from one crisis to another, and sounding less like a G-man than a mall cop as he plaintively explained the limits on his authority.

It's never a good sign when your top cop finds himself saying he has no "power whatsoever to compel anyone to do certain things." Yet that's exactly what Fahey said when he was asked about WADA's handling of the disclosure that Jamaica, a track and field powerhouse, tests its athletes less than Texas high schools.

WADA wanted to send a team to the island nation to investigate its anti-doping program after the country's former anti-doping chief told Sports Illustrated that only one of her athletes got an out-of-competition test before the 2012 Olympic Games in London. But, in a show of how little WADA is feared, the current head of the Jamaican Anti-Doping Commission brushed him off, suggesting that 2014 would be a better time.

Fahey finally got his way earlier this month, when a WADA delegation landed in Kingston. But it stayed only from Monday night to Wednesday morning, and four hours of that time was spent having dinner with the prime minister. "It's not enough," Dr. Paul Wright, a Jamaican doping control officer with three decades of experience told the BBC. "I would have loved them to have been here for a week, to have got answers to every question, to be able to question people who knew what was happening."

Nor was Jamaica the only country exposing the woeful limits of WADA's authority. Seventeen Kenyan runners have failed drug tests since 2012, yet Kenyan officials have repeatedly ignored WADA's pleas for them to look into media reports that their runners routinely get PEDs in exchange for a cut of their race winnings.

It took Kenyan officials until last week to even take the preliminary step of forming a task force to examine the allegation. Fahey, who previously declared himself "very frustrated" with Kenya, was left to weakly mumble that he welcomed "some action."

[+] EnlargeLance Armstrong
PATRICK KOVARIK/AFP/Getty ImagesActive cyclists could be offered immunity to testify about the sport's drug-stained past. But Lance Armstrong will not be eligible.

As columnist Marina Hyde pointed out in The Guardian, "WADA vocabulary reads like a master class in doormattery. It has to request to be 'accommodated.' When those requests are denied, or stalled, as they frequently seem to be, WADA is always 'frustrated' or 'disappointed.'"

And that was written before the most embarrassing disclosure of the week -- that Moscow's anti-doping lab — the only one in the country capable of testing Olympians in Sochi — is working like a broken Breathalyzer.

It's not as if WADA officials couldn't see the trouble coming. Over the summer, London's Daily Mail wrote a stunning exposé about the lab that contained this finding: Its director, Grigory Rodchenkov, was arrested on suspicion of selling banned drugs but released without being charged. His sister, meanwhile, was convicted in December 2012 of buying banned drugs with the intent to give them to athletes. Russian coaches, according to the paper, also have complained to WADA about test-rigging at the lab.

But things didn't come to a head until the Moscow lab produced several false positives during a recent routine evaluation. Fahey suspended the lab and is giving it until Dec. 1 to prove it can create a "quality program."

It's tempting to see this as another example of WADA's feebleness. But one veteran Olympic delegate sees it as just the opposite -- a fateful step to use what power it has to take on corrupt elements in Russia.

"It would have been much worse to do this after the Games," said the delegate, who asked not to be named. "Every email, voicemail and letter will be monitored by the Russians. Every ID badge will have a GPS chip. Do we really want their lab in charge of drug testing? I think the best thing would be to go outside of Russia to another lab."

That's what's happening in Brazil. The World Cup's organizers are scrambling to send their drug tests to Switzerland in 2014 because WADA suspended the Rio lab for "multiple failures." (A new lab has been promised for the 2016 Olympics in Rio.) 

These are some hard-nosed politics and policies, and they represent what looks like a fight for the future of the agency. It didn't go unnoticed in Johannesburg that the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency took on Lance Armstrong and won. As a result, a resolution was passed to create a truth and reconciliation commission that can give amnesty to cyclists who offer to testify. USADA's CEO, Travis Tygart, also spent a lot of time in Johannesburg talking about turning up the heat on anti-doping agencies like the one in Jamaica.

One thing is for sure: WADA is at a crossroads. The conference in Johannesburg did yield tougher codes for the agency to enforce. Now it has to prove it's not a bumbling, bloated organization while showing it can succeed in its basic, core mission: making Olympic drug testing run fairly.

• Senior writer for ESPN The Magazine
• Author of "Wide Open: Days and Nights on the NASCAR Tour"; the New York Times best-selling "Sex, Lies and Headlocks"; and "Steroid Nation"

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