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Extra Time: sport must be clean and fair or it is nothing

Extra Time: sport must be clean and fair or it is nothing

Lord Triesman

4 min read

A good friend, S, a Yorkshireman who loves his sport, told me a while ago he would never again watch athletics.

He felt it had become a competition between rival chemists, their path to success clearly illustrated by the former GDR (East German) sports teams. Of course, examples like American cyclist Lance Armstrong from other nations and sports tell the wider story, but the conclusion is the same. 

Finally, and against all its visible instincts, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) barred Russia from competing in the Olympics with a devastating statement about the Pyeongchang Winter games of 2018. Former Swiss president Samuel Schmid’s investigation proved “the systematic manipulation of the anti-doping rules and system in Russia,” and the clandestine concealment of doping at Sochi in 2014. 

We will always find a way of ensuring access to sport but will always want it to be fair

Yet in classic IOC weasel-words there was no ban. Russian athletes believed to be clean by an IOC panel could compete as an “Olympic Athlete from Russia” in a slightly varied kit. No one likes to penalise clean athletes but such dividing lines are risible. Canadian lawyer Richard McLaren reported for the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) that the doping and cover-up operations had been directly organised by Russia’s sports ministry; key evidence provided by Grigory Rodchenkov, former head of Russia’s anti-doping laboratories, setting out the techniques for hiding positive doping tests. 

You have to feel for the redoubtable Sir Craig Reedie (WADA’s former president) whose forthcoming book details United Kingdom, Dutch, Swiss and Canadian investigations of serial hacking of WADA. The poisonous cherry on the cake was the discovery that one of the suspected hackers was one of the two GRU (Russian security services) operatives (“thugs” in Reedie’s apt description) charged with poisoning the Skripals in Salisbury.  

The IOC failed miserably to support Reedie, who describes in his forthcoming book how one of his staff “watched a senior member of the IOC management embrace the then president of the Russian Olympic Committee, Alexander Zhukov, with the words, ‘We did it, didn’t we?’”  

This isn’t about Ukraine – profoundly important as that is. It’s about systemic breaking of rules, of seeking unfair advantage at the expense of other athletes. Fairness in sport is the business of WADA. Its initial purpose was to stop testosterone and similar drugs being used to enhance performance and disadvantage clean competitors. The controversies about sex differences between men and women which are central to sport haven’t been created by malevolent regimes but the sad reality is they create the same unfairness. 

Developmental biology builds humans and other species on biological principles which happily have nothing to do with governments. The secondary characteristics of reproduction – height, bone length, muscle mass and type, heart size and lung surface, and thousands of other physical differences lead to performance differences in most sports. It isn’t ideology that determines post-puberty performance, or the fact it cannot be adjusted significantly beyond puberty. Meticulous research (Transgender Women in the Female Category of Sport, E Hilton and T Lundberg, Sports Medicine 2021) puts the case beyond doubt. Recent examples of transgender swimming and cycling successes in competitions intended for women competitors has created circumstances where women athletes fear their sport will be “decimated,” according to The Times journalist James Beal, who has described how his sources were “terrified of speaking out and none of them agrees with the policy”.  

I’d have no such anxiety if I denounced matching flyweights and heavyweights in boxing. Where necessary we take account of physical differences. Sports bodies have no definitional problem aside from fear. We will always find a way of ensuring access to sport but will always want it to be fair. I’d work on any legislation or guidance for this obvious goal. 

I simply don’t want new methods to game the game, for whatever motives, to destroy fair competition. Otherwise it isn’t sport. 

 

Lord Triesman is a Labour peer and former chair of the Football Association.

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