Generic Olympic·In Depth

Canada plays by anti-doping rules while cheaters prosper

While Canada at least attempts to play "clean" with its stringent anti-doping system, some other countries continue to mock international rules on drug use by athletes while reaping the rewards — at least in the short term.

WADA code treated inconsistently by different countires

Reigning Olympic high jump champion Anna Chicherova of Russia is one of several athletes who have been caught for doping violations after samples from past Games were retested. (Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

When it comes to international sport, Canadians like to think of ourselves as champions of playing fair, of sending "clean" athletes to events like the Olympic Games. 

We like to play by the rules. 

"I think most Canadians have confidence that the vast majority of our athletes in the Olympics are clean," says Paul Melia, CEO of the Canadian Centre for Ethics and Sport, the agency tasked with overseeing Canada's anti-doping efforts. "We have a [drug-testing] program in Canada that has been modelled around the world.

"We had our watershed moment back in the late '80s [with the Ben Johnson scandal] and we built a program, we said 'never again' and we've been steadily improving that program."

Still, drug use remains a dark cloud hovering over the Olympics. As recent doping scandals involving Russia, Kenya and other countries show, the litany of dishonesty, corruption and outright cheating seems unending. Beyond allegations of bribery and corrupt officials, the inability to ensure international competitions are fair and free of doping continues to threaten the public's trust and interest in global competitions like the Olympics.

While Canada and many other countries appear to be at least attempting to play clean, some continue to mock the rules, prioritizing winning medals over encouraging drug-free athletes. The rewards, at least in the short term, can be great for those that break the rules: Russia topped all rivals with 33 medals at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, where at least 15 of its podium finishers were reportedly part of a state-run doping program. 

That begs the question: In an athletic landscape tarnished by drug use, cheating and a win-at-all-costs mentality, does playing by the rules put Canadian athletes at a competitive disadvantage?

'Impossible to cheat in Canada'

It's a question Alex Gardiner has wrestled with. Now at the University of Manitoba, Gardiner was the head coach of Canada's track and field team at the 2012 London Olympics.

Gardiner adamantly believes that with talent, exceptional coaching and a great support team, his athletes had a chance to win. But he didn't always know if that was enough, particularly when he witnessed incredible improvements by rival competitors.

I didn't feel like I was always on an even playing field.- Anson Henry, former Olympic sprinter

"Did I always feel that we would be on equal footing? No, I didn't, quite frankly," Gardiner says over the phone from Winnipeg. "We knew that even if the [rapidly improved] athlete wasn't caught [doping] that the improvement throughout the season was... a bit of an outlier, so to speak. We thought, 'Man, where did that come from?' And that happens every Olympics, almost in every sport: 'Where did that come from?'"

Former sprinter Anson Henry, who competed for Canada at the 2008 Olympics, says he was involved in a number of high-profile races where the winner eventually ended up testing positive.

"I didn't feel like I was always on an even playing field," says Henry, who now works for CBC Sports. "I didn't really let it get to me or have any accusations in mind as far as who was dirty. Innocent until proven guilty, but I wasn't oblivious to what was going on.

"I believe that Canada could be the cleanest team in the whole world. With the way [anti-doping efforts have] been set up and the amount of funding that they have put towards it, it is pretty much impossible to cheat in Canada."

Canadian marathon runner Reid Coolsaet feels likewise.

"Some races I would feel there is someone that I'm competing against that is probably cheating. Most races in Canada, especially national championships, it doesn't even cross my mind. I think it's clean," says Coolsaet, who competed at the London Olympics and has run internationally for Canada since 2002. "At international races, there are certain athletes that people are suspicious of."

Coolsaet says a number of factors contribute to suspicion, including dramatic improvements in personal best times and affiliation with certain coaches.

"If I were to switch to a coach who had doped people before and he helped me take three minutes off my personal best marathon time, that would be suspicious." Coolsaet says. "There are athletes out there who have done that."

State-sanctioned doping

Coolsaet's suspicions aren't without reason. For those who haven't been following the seemingly daily drumbeat of bad news, this is what we know:

  • According to investigations conducted by the World Anti-Doping Agency, Russia administered a state-sanctioned doping program that ensured its track and field athletes had access to banned substances while making sure they were not caught by testing at international competitions. The allegations have put the eligibility of Russian track and field athletes for the Rio Olympics in jeopardy, pending a ruling by the IAAF, track and field's governing body.
  • The New York Times reported earlier this month that dozens of Russian athletes who competed at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, including at least 15 medal winners, were part of a state-run doping program.
  • Kenya narrowly avoided an Olympic ban for its track and field athletes after WADA declared the country's drug-testing agency "non-compliant" for missing two deadlines to show it was dealing with cheating (40 Kenyan athletes have failed tests since the 2012 London Olympics — most outside the country). The IAAF ruled that the distance-running power can compete in Rio, pending the expected approval of the International Olympic Committee.
  • Last week, the IOC announced that 31 athletes from 12 countries could be banned from Rio after their samples from the 2008 Beijing Olympics tested positive for prohibited substances. This list reportedly includes at least 14 Russian athletes, including reigning Olympic high jump champion Anna Chicherova.
  • The IOC followed up Friday by saying retests from the 2012 London Olympics turned up 23 more positives. So far, no Canadians have been reported to be on the list of those who failed the retests.

'Everyone is doing it'

In Canada, all drug testing is carried out by the Canadian Centre for Ethics and Sport, which administers a code set forth by WADA. Other countries are supposed to be doing the same, but that's not always the case, says Melia, the CEO of CCES.

"[The code] is not being implemented in every country, in every sport, the way it was designed. Part of what we have to do is help other countries develop their programs. But when you're dealing with 200 countries around the world, you're dealing with language, you're dealing with culture."

Canadian lawyer Richard McLaren agrees. One of the co-authors of WADA's damming report on Russia's state-sponsored doping program, McLaren says there is a wide variance in how the WADA code is treated globally.

"I think what Canada is doing is we're applying the regime the way it`s supposed to be applied," McLaren says. "The argument the Russians use is, 'Well, everyone is [doping] so we're going to do it. We`re not going to administer our program properly."

Part of the problem, says Canadian former Olympian Beckie Scott, is that WADA doesn't have the means to effectively police everyone.

"At the moment they don't really have that jurisdiction or authority to impose immediate sanctions or take immediate actions when in extraordinary circumstances like [Russia's]," says Scott, now the chair of WADA's athletes committee. "But the athletes would like to see more immediacy. Six months is too long for a decision to come around."

'WADA needs the power'

Scott has been hurt more than most by doping. The cross-country skier had to wait more than two years to get her gold medal from the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics after finishing third there, only to see the two skiers ahead of her test positive.

"I think athletes are generally discouraged," she says. "And we have heard from them across all nations and across all sports, but especially from those going to Rio because there is a sense of urgency here."

"I think that an athlete's career is only so long. Many are probably looking at their last Olympic Games being in Rio. And you just feel [anti-doping efforts have] been inadequate in terms of providing them with the opportunity to compete on a level playing field."

McLaren says WADA must grow teeth. That means moving beyond being simply a "regulator" that only encourages compliance with its code, to assuming responsibility for punishing cheaters, including the power to ban them from the Olympics and other events.

Under the current system, that job falls to the IOC and/or sport governing bodies like the IAAF.

"WADA needs the power to sanction non-compliant sports and countries. That`s an important missing piece," says Melia, who thinks track's governing body ought to ban Russians from the Rio Olympics.

"The athletes of the world are watching to see how the IAAF will respond."


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