IOC Doping In Sport Conference

They Just Don't Get It


Karin Helmstaedt

LAUSANNE - The posters around the Olympic capital said it all. On walls all over town were photos of young athletes, each shown in three identical frames. From left to right, each frame had a word in black letters:    Challenge - Respect - Doping.

In the frame labelled "Doping" a black bar covered the eyes of the athlete. Others carried variations:    Courage - Dignity - Doping  or  Respect - Fair Play - Doping. The World Conference on Doping in Sport was a lot of show for little substance. A lot of buzz words, and very little clear meaning.

On the second day one of the Swiss newspapers printed a cartoon with three adjacent frames of Samaranch. The first two-Courage and Dignity-had black bars over the eyes. The doping frame was untouched.

But despite three days of harsh criticisms, frustrated questions, and political pressure, at the end of it all the IOC congratulated itself. Pleased with the results of the conference, IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch called it a "great victory for clean sport." Vice President Dick Pound said the discussions had gone "beyond our wildest dreams." Delegates from Australia, Canada, and the United States expressed weak-kneed satisfaction that "the IOC was listening," that progress-of some kind-had been made.

The language of diplomacy is a subtle art form indeed. And a language understood with difficulty by the hordes of media that plowed through paper and rhetoric to get to the sparse meat of the matter at the Palais Beaulieu. Cynicism was rife as the conference wrapped up on vague promises of action, although some argued that expectations were too high going into a meeting that left little room for debate.

Of real significance in the final declaration were two things: the commitment to create an independent anti-doping agency, and the backing down on the the minimum two-year sanction by introducing a flexibility clause. In addition, a common anti-doping code was accepted by all international federations, and the Olympic oath was extended to include coaches and other officials.

No surprises there, but it was hardly satisfactory. In the first place, plans for the "independent" agency are nebulous at best. A working group-the composition of which is still a mystery-will meet in the next three months to define its structure, mission, and financing. Just how that group will be selected is a source of concern, and whether or not the IOC will head the agency was never clearly defined despite vehement opposition from many delegates.

Samaranch had hoped that by making a show of saving sport, he could save himself. But the world will no longer be duped.

Whether the agency will be up and running for the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney-as Pound suggested-is also cause for debate. The IOC has pledged an initial sum of $25 million to get the agency started, a noble gesture that nevertheless gives the IOC a financial lever of control in the agency's development.

"If we initiate something, if you control something, if you pay for something, I think it's difficult to push you out and say you will be replaced by other people but please continue to pay. It's a little bit ridiculous," said the chairman of the IOC Medical Commission, Prince Alexandre de Merode.

And with the help of the International Cycling Union (UCI), FIFA president Sepp Blatter and his heavyweight Soccer Federation succeeded in pressuring the other federations into easing up on the issue of two-year minimum sanctions. The right to work of professional athletes will be protected by a flexibility clause for "exceptional circumstances," demonstrating the IOC's commitment to big bucks rather than the health of athletes. It is also ironic given that cycling and soccer were at the centre of the two largest drug scandals to shake the sporting world last year.

Equally disheartening was the fact that even a hard line from European and American politicians was unable to exact a shred of humility from the IOC boss himself. Instead of accepting the overwhelming lack of confidence displayed in his leadership and his committee, Samaranch glossed over stinging criticism with irrelevant statements of the IOC's success at tackling the issue, determined as ever not to relinquish one thread of his power.

Sports Ministers from Germany, England, and France led an impressive European government offensive to state their collective resolve to fight doping and demand transparency and independence for the agency. But with the exception of France, anti-doping legislation has yet to be put into place in most countries, only adding to the work that lies ahead. In addition, their lack of concrete commitments for financing of the agency took some of the power from their punch.

At the end of it all, the IOC did its despotic best to save face against a backdrop of corruption scandals and growing mistrust. Samaranch railroaded the final declaration through in true totalitarian fashion. To his question "Agreed?" came a smattering of uneasy applause. No formal voting, ballots, or even a show of hands pro or con. Only British Sport Minister Tony Banks stood firm on behalf of the European Sport Ministers and opposed the declaration. "We don't see ourselves as parties to the final declaration as currently drafted," he said afterward. "We cannot agree with the paragraph on sanctions, which is both minimalist and permissive. It undermines the proposed two-year ban."

The general frustration among other delegates was largely subdued by what Wade Exum called "typical IOC process." The USOC Doping Committtee delegate said, "It's a process where you're trying to bring a diverse group and a lot of diverse issues together ... they just put stuff out there and it gets gone over and looked at and eventually people come to an agreement. It seems to work for them." One American delegate, Mark Sisson, representing the International Triathlon Federation, questioned the lack of a voting process and was alarmed by the unstructured nature of the proceedings.

"I expected more from this conference, and I think a lot of the International Federations expected more," he said. "The outcome of the meeting was predetermined, and in that respect, if all we were going to do was reach a consensus, we could have done it by fax or phone and saved thousands of dollars."

It was the attitude of many. The only democracy the IOC knows was demonstrated beautifully when the Executive had the audacity to take a time-out from the doping meeting to vote against relinquishing their voting rights when deciding on sites for Olympic Games-a power play that may come back to haunt them as multiple investigations into IOC corruption bear their fruit.

Andrew Jennings, author of The New Lords of the Rings and probably the most celebrated Olympic critic, shook his head and said, "They just don't get it. Day after day they just don't get it." In Lausanne, Juan Antonio Samaranch had hoped that by making a show of saving sport, he could save himself. But the world will no longer be duped. And while he steels himself for a March meeting that could spell the end of his dynasty, the new chapter on doping in sport has barely begun.