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New athlete-led movement aims to drive change across the sporting world

Rob Koehler was tired of athletes being told to keep quiet and determined to see them balance the power with sports administrators. That's why the Montreal-based executive left the World Anti-Doping Agency to head up a new international athlete-led movement that launched Wednesday.

'It's time to allow athletes to say what's wrong with sport,' says head Rob Koehler

Former World Anti-Doping Agency deputy director general Rob Koehler has joined the new international athlete-led movement Global Athlete, along with British cyclist Callum Skinner and eight Olympians or Paralympians. (CBC)

Rob Koehler was tired of athletes being told to keep quiet and determined to see them balance the power with sports administrators.

To that end, the Montreal-based executive left his position as deputy director general with the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) in August for "personal reasons," to head up Global Athlete, an international athlete-led movement that launched Wednesday, aiming to drive change across the sporting world.

Athletes have spoken out in large numbers to protest what they perceive as lax treatment of Russia by the International Olympic Committee and WADA in the wake of the country's doping scandal.

The nonprofit group FairSport and individual donors will provide funding for the new group, and Koehler said sports, governments and anti-doping groups will have no say over Global Athlete's decision-making.

The independent body will focus on issues such as calling for a more robust doping system, better athlete welfare and ensuring athletes receive some Olympic revenues or prize money.

Athletes need to have a stronger say in how sport is being shaped, a stronger say in anti-doping rules.— GlobalAthlete executive director Rob Koehler

"The whole idea of dissenting voices being cast off and not being listened to, or being portrayed as uninformed and not seeing the big picture, doesn't fly," Koehler said. "The athletes we talk to get the big picture. They want to grow sport together with sporting leaders."

While Koehler said the group will reach out to the IOC and WADA, the athletes involved in the group will have to ultimately decide the best way to push for change.

8 Olympians/Paralympians involved

"It's time to allow athletes to say what's wrong with sport and listen to and engage them," Koehler told CBC News during a recent interview in Montreal.

"Athletes need to have a stronger say in how sport is being shaped, a stronger say in anti-doping rules, and they want to be engaged in a way that helps them contribute to the growth," said Koehler, who will lead the organization as executive director. 

WATCH | International athletes form new advocacy group:

Aims to give athletes stronger voice against doping, other issues. 4:58

British Olympic champion cyclist Callum Skinner will play a role in mobilizing athletes. Global Athlete will also bring together eight athletes in different sports from across the world, including recently retired Canadian Paralympic swimmer Benoit Huot.

Global Athlete, which isn't seeking to replace the IOC or WADA, intends to listen to and empower athletes and athletic groups to work toward a common goal of addressing a perceived disconnect between athletes and sports leaders worldwide. The IOC and WADA have yet to respond.

'We really want to work with' IOC

Koehler believes the voices of athletes are not welcomed by sport leaders unless their comments align with the leaders' viewpoint, so he's pushing for athletes to have an equal seat at the table.

In an interview with CBC News in Manchester, England, Skinner said it is difficult at times to not see the IOC's Athletes' Commission as an extension of the IOC "that maybe pushes their end goals more than the athletes'.

"We want to hear the opinion [of the IOC and WADA], which might sound ironic, given they suppressed ours so much, but we'll call this a clean slate," Skinner said. "We really want to work with them as closely as possible to impact genuine change."

In a leading role with Global Athlete, Skinner says he will help 'inspire and change sport for the better and bring it into the 21st century.' (CBC)

IOC athletes commission chair Kirsty Coventry said "it's disappointing that this group seems to believe that none of us care about athletes," and that she didn't believe athletes should differentiate themselves as West vs. East or rich vs. poor. She said representatives on the commission are democratically elected by peers from 206 countries.

WADA responded by reiterating a series of governance reforms designed to increase athlete representation on its board.

The goal, noted Koehler, is to mobilize smaller groups and align with existing athlete groups while engaging in conversation over the next six to eight months in the hopes of making other global organizations accountable.

"I've always aligned with the athletes," said Koehler, who served in various roles with WADA since 2002. "They're ready to take control. They're seeing a bigger picture, that [amateur sport] is a multibillion-dollar industry and now is the time to have more say on everything from revenue generators to rights to better work conditions."

When asked to grade the frustration of athletes on a scale of one to 10, Koehler replied: "9.5. They really, really have had enough. They want to see change."

Russia reinstatement caused uproar

The frustrations of many athletes boiled over in October when, on a 9-2 vote, WADA's executive committee took the advice of the agency's compliance review panel and reinstated the Russian Anti-Doping Agency after a nearly three-year suspension resulting from the country's scheme to circumvent rules and win Olympic medals.

Hundreds of athletes and dozens of world anti-doping leaders viewed the decision as a stinging rebuke to the ideal of fair play, and Beckie Scott, an Olympic champion in cross-country skiing, resigned from that committee.

"I'm profoundly disappointed," the Canadian told the CBC News after the decision. "I feel this was an opportunity for WADA, and they have dealt a devastating blow to clean sport. I'm quite dismayed."

The Russian doping scandal, however, isn't the lone issue that provided momentum to launch Global Athlete. Over the past 14 months:

  • Former U.S. gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar was sentenced for a third and final time, to 40 to 125 years in prison, for molesting young athletes at an elite Michigan training centre.
  • Former Canadian national ski coach Bertrand Charest, who was convicted of 37 charges related to the sexual assault of some young athletes, was sentenced to 12 years in prison.
  • A judge in Sarnia, Ont., will decide Wednesday if ex-Canadian gymnastics coach David Brubaker is guilty of sexual assault and sexual exploitation against a former athlete.
  • Olympic short track speed skating champion Shim Suk-hee was allegedly beaten by a South Korean national team coach, who was suspended.

This week, a CBC News and Sports investigation revealed at least 222 coaches involved in amateur sports in Canada over 20 years have been convicted of sex offences involving over 600 victims under 18.

I think the sporting world fears the power of the athlete.— Global Athlete executive director Rob Koehler

"We're not in this just to improve anti-doping but a range of issues important to athletes, whether it's better representation at the decision-making table, standing up against abuse and pushing for better commercial opportunities for athletes," said Skinner, a member of the British Olympic Association's Athletes' Commission and the U.K. Anti-Doping Athlete Commission.

Koehler, who said the IOC has "billions of dollars in reserve," would like to see athletes compensated for Olympic appearances since they must remove any form of sponsorship before the start of the Games.

"Give them a square on their jersey or bib to celebrate sponsors who've supported them for three to four years leading up to the Games," he said. "Maybe it could be done without giving them direct funds.

"I think the sporting world fears the power of the athlete."

Canadian lawyer Dick Pound, who founded WADA, once told Koehler: "There's only one thing that's going to change the face of sport and make people listen … and accountable, and that's when athletes get together."

"If we can provide a mechanism to start a discussion and start that balance of power," added Koehler, "I think we're off to a great start."

About the Author

Doug Harrison has covered the professional and amateur scene as a senior writer for CBC Sports since 2003. Previously, the Burlington, Ont., native covered the NHL and other leagues for Faceoff.com. Follow the award-winning journalist @harrisoncbc

With files from Susan Ormiston, Stephanie Jenzer and The Associated Press

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