Anti-doping athletes begin to recognize strength in numbers

Olympians and Paralympians at the first anti-doping forum organized by and for athletes experienced a political awakening in Calgary.

'They're starting to realize that together, they can actually be a force'

World Anti-Doping Agency athlete committee chairperson Beckie Scott, centre, llistens during a news conference following the Global Athlete Forum in Calgary on Tuesday. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

Olympians and Paralympians at the first anti-doping forum organized by and for athletes experienced a political awakening in Calgary.

The two-day conference featuring 104 athletes from 54 countries concluded Tuesday with the commitment to enshrine athletes' rights in the World Anti-Doping Code for the first time, and with the realization of the collective power they can wield in the fight against doping.

"I feel like this has been a real watershed moment for athletes," said Canadian cross-country skier Beckie Scott, who chairs the World Anti-Doping Agency's athletes' committee.

"I would say my faith has been renewed over the last couple of days.

"Many athletes who felt they didn't have power or value or something to contribute suddenly recognized their power."

Scott's Olympic bronze in 2002 was upgraded to silver and then gold over the course of two years because competitors ahead of her were stripped of medals for doping violations.

Allegations of state-sanctioned doping by host Russia at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, and how the world governing bodies of sport handled the situation at both the 2016 Summer Games and 2018 Winter Games, threw the Olympic movement into turmoil.

The Calgary forum, backed by the Canadian Olympic Committee and the Canadian Centre For Ethics in Sport, included talks by and discussions with WADA president Craig Reedie, director general Olivier Niggli and director of intelligence and investigations Guenter Younger.

Russian whistleblowers speak

Russian middle-distance runner Yuliya Stepanova and husband Vitaly spoke via video conferencing from the United States about revealing widespread doping in Russia during a session on whistleblowing.

Athletes listed corruption, conflict of interest and lack of independence by anti-doping organizations around the world as their top concerns.

A charter of athletes' rights that will be integrated into WADA's anti-doping code in 2021 was a significant outcome of the forum for Scott and others.

Among those rights are clean and fair sport, equitable and fair testing programs, the right to representation in a disciplinary setting and the right to call out drug cheats without fear of retribution.

"It's not actually written into the WADA code the rights that athletes have. It needs to be," British marathoner Paula Radcliffe said. "Then it cannot be taken away from you."

Olympic and Paralympic athletes are behind the curve of unions in professional sports leagues when it comes to exercising collective power.

Radcliffe believes the forum woke them up to the big bat they hold in changing attitudes and actions of those who run and participate in sport.

Bargaining tool

"If everybody walked out of the Olympics tomorrow, there would be no Olympics. It's a big bargaining tool to actually have," she said.

"Without them, there's nothing for the media to write, there's nothing for the IOC to sell because they have no athletes."

Canada's Richard Pound was the first head of WADA when it was established in 2005.

The Montreal lawyer and International Olympic Committee member said athletes weren't comfortable talking about the issue publicly then.

"I don't think they realized they had collective power," Pound said. "They're starting to realize that together, they can actually be a force. One by one you get picked off and squashed."

American bobsledder Lauryn Williams concurred the forum emboldened athletes to be anti-doping activists in their training and competition environments.

"I think athletes left here encouraged and inspired and ready to take action to continue the fight against anti-doping and be more active in their leadership roles," she said.