Blowing the whistle

"Twenty-plus-year career, 500 drug controls worldwide, in and out of competition. Never a failed test." - Lance Armstrong, 2012.

"I have never ever failed a drug test. I have taken over 160 drug tests. I have taken tests before, during and after the 2000 Olympics and have never failed a test." - Marion Jones, 2004

Over the coming weeks in Rio, thousands of drug tests will be conducted. Every medallist will submit a sample to check that they competed fairly. Many randomly chosen athletes will have testers accost them in their dormitories and hotels. But all this will happen more in hope than conviction that the cheaters will be caught.

It is a sad fact hanging over all professional sport that when it comes to the most elaborate doping conspiracies, testing has failed – a situation familiar to boards trying to achieve cultural change where as a first step protocols have led to compliance in form but not yet compliance in substance.

Notoriously cyclist Lance Armstrong was able to win six Tours de France, powered by a brew of erythropoietin, testosterone and illegal transfusions of blood, all the while hiding behind the smokescreen that he had never failed a test.

Athlete Marion Jones's iconic performances at the Sydney Olympics in winning three gold medals and two bronze were made possible by a steroid which had colloquially been called 'The Clear', since at the time it failed to show up in tests.

It was only through the testimony of whistleblowers, who were either in their teams or support staff, that the ultra sophisticated doping programs of Armstrong and Jones were revealed.

Doping programs only succeed through secrecy. – ASADA CEO Ben McDevitt

The case of Yulia Stepanova, the Russian 800m runner, and her husband Vitaly Stepanov, who despite risk to their lives detailed to journalists the systematic flouting of drug controls by Russia, has again shown how vital whistleblowers are to bringing doping into the light.

"Doping programs only succeed through secrecy. Teammates, friends, flat mates, health practitioners, support staff, competitors and partners are often in a position to see and hear things that a drug cheat would prefer remain secret,” Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority (ASADA) CEO Ben McDevitt told The Boardroom Report.

Yet it is often immensely difficult for whistleblowers in sports, as it can be in organisations to feel confident that the repercussions won't be severe if they come forward.

Prominent South African sports scientist Ross Tucker has written about a culture of fear in elite sport that is not understood by the general public. “[Whistleblowers] risk everything for a tiny possibility of uncertain change,” Tucker writes.

It’s a far cry from best practice as outlined by whistleblowing expert Professor A.J. Brown for organisations “to have credible processes in place to respond to concerns… and commitment to supporting [whistleblowers] and heading off reprisals.”

The situation though is not quite so bleak in Australia, according to McDevitt.

"The Australian sports scene and the Australian public do not tolerate cheats and dopers and I think that’s of great comfort to people who come forward with information,” McDevitt says.

ASADA offers to protect whistleblowers’ identities if they come forward and can offer leniency to athletes who have violated the anti-doping code but provide information.

At the international level though, many in the sports community have been disappointed by the International Olympic Committee’s response to the revelations of the Stepanovs, now hiding in the US in fear of reprisals, and the message this sends to those thinking of blowing the whistle.

With conclusive evidence of a state-sponsored doping program the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) recommended the entire Russian team be banned from competing at Rio. Instead the IOC chose a hodge-podge approach delegating to individual sports whether Russian athletes should compete.

At the same time, the Swiss-based organisation denied Stepanova's request to compete at the games as a neutral athlete since, having been part of the system of doping and corruption she ended up denouncing, she 'did not satisfy the ethical requirements for an athlete to enter the Olympic Games'.

Stepanova was instrumental in courageously exposing the single biggest doping scandal of all time – WADA Director General Olivier Niggli

WADA, however, continues to stand by the integrity of the whistleblower.

"Stepanova was instrumental in courageously exposing the single biggest doping scandal of all time. WADA is very concerned by the message that this sends whistleblowers for the future,” WADA Director General Olivier Niggli said.

It is not all doom and gloom though for the governance of doping among international sporting organisations. This week the International Paralympic Committee stood up to ban Russian athletes from the upcoming Paralympic Games. A decision applauded by WADA as putting "morals over medals" and one which perhaps makes the Stepanovs, despite the IOC’s compromises, feel their efforts blowing the whistle will not be for naught.


Watch NSW Institute of Sport chairman Gary Flowers FAICD discuss sporting governance challenges ahead of the 2016 Rio Olympic Games.