Protect the champions of anti-doping at Olympics

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) recently announced that 10 refugee athletes from troubled or war-torn nations would be allowed to compete in the summer Olympic Games.

The committee believes that the group, officially known as the Refugee Olympic Team, will serve as a "symbol of hope" in Rio de Janeiro.

The IOC's action to field a refugee team is an example of the Games' spirit at its best - using sport to transcend politics and promote human dignity. The decision also comes at a crucial moment when the Olympic movement's fundamental values seem under attack.

Few issues exemplify the crisis more than the allegations of state-supported doping in Russia.

For this reason, the IOC and the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) must use their authority to grant a similar special eligibility status to another athlete. In this competitor's case, it is not because she has been forced to flee a conflict zone, but because her moral actions have helped to preserve the integrity of the Olympic movement itself.

That athlete is Yuliya Stepanova, a brave whistle-blower on organised doping in Russian athletics.

Today, in Vienna, an IAAF task force will report on whether Russia should be permitted to send a track-and-field team to Rio. The panel will also consider whether Stepanova should be allowed to compete in Rio as an independent competitor, like the refugee athletes.


A sports stadium in Stavropol, Russia. Today, in Vienna, an IAAF task force will report on whether Russia will be allowed to send a track-and-field team to Rio. The panel will also consider whether Yulia Stepanova, who exposed the state-backed doping in Russia, should be allowed to compete in Rio as an independent competitor, along with refugee athletes. PHOTO: REUTERS

Stepanova is an accomplished 800m runner from Russia. Because she was a medal contender at the international level, she was, in her words, considered "untouchable". In Russia, that meant an athlete who was doped, with the knowledge of her coaches and sports federation, with performance-enhancing drugs like anabolic steroids and the blood-boosting agent EPO, and who was protected from drug-testing controls within her country.

All that changed in 2012. After she was injured, the Russian athletics federation stopped protecting her. In 2013, she received a two-year ban from the IAAF after abnormalities were found in her Athlete Biological Passport, which provides a physiological baseline on every athlete to help identify possible doping.

To maintain its credibility as a proponent of clean sport, the International Olympic Committee must grant Stepanova the right to compete in Rio independently of Russia. And for the future, the bodies that govern international Olympic competition must establish a new mechanism to protect whistle-blowers like the Stepanovs.

After much soul-searching, she decided to come clean. She chose not to seek a lighter punishment by invoking a provision of the World Anti-Doping Code that permits the World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada) to reduce sanctions for athletes who provide assistance to anti-doping efforts.

Instead, she served her ban and joined her husband, Mr Vitaly Stepanov, then an anti-doping official, in the risky task of amassing evidence of officially sanctioned Russian doping.

Together, they provided Wada with credible evidence of systemic cheating. Because of their whistle-blowing, the couple feared for their lives and fled the country, eventually settling in the United States.

Stepanova has continued to train on her own, returning to competition and earning an Olympic-qualifying time. She has been part of the pool of elite athletes subject to unannounced, out-of-competition testing, and has tested clean. She should therefore be considered fully eligible to compete, yet she cannot go home or run for her country.

To maintain its credibility as a proponent of clean sport, the IOC must grant Stepanova the right to compete in Rio independently of Russia. And for the future, the bodies that govern international Olympic competition must establish a new mechanism to protect whistle-blowers like the Stepanovs.

There are currently no rules in the World Anti-Doping Code or the Olympic Charter to protect these vital truth-tellers. The Russian track-and-field scandal could not demonstrate more clearly how much the enforcement of the Wada code in individual countries relies on international governing bodies' ability to protect whistle-blowers.

Wada alone cannot monitor compliance in every country, and the Russian scandal has exposed grave failures in its governance. But relying on each national federation's anti-doping efforts is clearly problematic.

Some countries, like Britain, Canada and the US, have anti-doping bodies with the funding and political capital to police doping effectively, to test and punish athletes who cheat.

Others, like Russia, pay lip service to anti-doping measures while fostering a culture of cheating.

As we see from the allegations about how anti-doping tests at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics were an elaborate charade, it is only through the efforts of principled inside informants like Stepanova that the truth can come to light.

It would make a mockery of the Olympic movement to deny an athlete who has taken enormous personal risks for the cause of clean sport the ability to participate in the Rio Olympics. To do so would, in effect, punish her for speaking the truth and upholding the World Anti-Doping Code and Olympic ideals.

Nearly two decades ago, the establishment of Wada and the adoption of its code were historic steps towards preserving the integrity of clean sport. But Russia's systemic doping has proved the need for further reform.

Whistle-blower protections are the logical next step. Granting Stepanova the right to participate in Rio would go a long way towards ensuring that the Olympics lives up to the ideals of its charter.

The IOC's generous move in admitting a refugees' team matches the spirit of the Games.

Let the committee also extend that grace to a runner who has already proved herself an Olympic champion.

NEW YORK TIMES

•The writer is a professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law, where she is director of the Centre for Sport and the Law.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 17, 2016, with the headline 'Protect the champions of anti-doping at Olympics'. Print Edition | Subscribe