Visual Culture

Foul Play: Doping and Corruption in World Athletics


By Anne-Christine Wegener

Global athletics have been in crisis since 2015. The second edition of the report published by Richard McLaren on grand-scale doping in Russian athletics confirms what many had already suspected: corruption and doping in sports go hand-in-hand and the problem is not restricted to a few bad apples. The problem distorts the level playing field of sports and gives an unfair advantage to those using it, as many of those ranked fourth place behind Russian athletes in the last Olympics can attest. Doping also poses a huge danger to athletes’ health.

How is it possible that this has gone largely unnoticed until now? The answer is: it hasn’t, but many of those responsible have chosen to ignore the problem so that it does not affect the big business of sports. Three key factors underly this situation. First, institutional failure by the national and international sports governing bodies; second, bribery used to persuade officials to turn a blind eye; third, the distorting influence of big money in international athletics (and in team games more widely).

McLaren’s report, commissioned by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and published last week brought the scale of the problem to light on the global stage. The report acknowledges the involvement of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) (the IAAF is to athletics what FIFA is to football) in covering up athletes’ doping in cases of state-sponsored and systemic support. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) also knew, but at first was reluctant to ban Russian athletes from the last Olympics, despite strong evidence. The Russian national athletics body and the national Russian Anti-Doping Agency were the driving forces behind the elaborate doping system. Where doping is so prevalent, not only are athletes encouraged to use illegal substances, they either do it unknowingly or are given a choice between the national associations’ training and funding support or giving up the sport. Where the national anti-doping agency is in cohorts with the national sports regulatory body, doping tests can quite effectively be forged, as demonstrated in last week’s McLaren report. The effectiveness of WADA, however, depends on national anti-doping agencies to do their jobs properly.

But the failure of some national sports bodies as well as international governing bodies is a product of severe governance problems, where conflicts of interests of elected officials are commonplace and political and commercial influence over who gets elected to the board or where sporting events take place is frequent. Currently WADA does not have the authority to oversee national anti-doping efforts, let alone governance problems of organisations, which effectively ties their hands. If world athletics communities really want to get a handle on fighting corruption, they need to walk the talk and actually give WADA wide-ranging competences.

At the same time, attention needs to be paid to the corruption that occurs mostly at the mid-level, where officials are being bribed to turn a blind eye to urine samples being tampered with or swapped, or unannounced tests being avoided altogether. Officials in some national organisations have boasted to undercover reporters (posing as coaches to Olympic athletes) that if athletes trained in their country, national officials can help avoid these tests for athletes by tipping off ahead of time – for a price. It is unlikely that these offers are not known by and tolerated by the national sports governing bodies. To effectively tackle the problem of bribery, the tone from the top needs to change alongside renewed public pressure on national organisations to start looking into the conduct of their officials and how best to clean up their organisations.

Lastly, the influence of big money in international sports makes anti-doping and anti-corruption efforts more difficult as the influx of money has strengthened vested interests, as the cases of bribery in football have proven. Selling the TV rights for international sports events like the Olympics or the football World Cup to sports marketing firms brings international (and national) sports governing bodies a financial windfall. As sports get more TV time and increase potential for sponsorship, TV rights keep getting more valuable and expensive. This, in effect, has been pushing out some public TV stations from being able to buy the licences for public television, as recently witnessed in Germany where the two state TV stations failed to secure the rights to the next couple of summer Olympics due to the licences being too expensive.

Due to a combination of weak sports governance, bribery, and the influx of big money, doping in athletics has been allowed to flourish. The losers in this rigging of the sport have not only been those athletes who were placed behind doped competitors, but also the viewing public and, in the long run, the sport itself. As for every organisation or sector that systematically bends and breaks the rules and uses bribery, any competitive advantage gained by corruption and doping is a short-term win. Viewing success at the level of an individual athlete or the sport as whole as a marathon rather than a sprint, neither corruption nor doping will be able to win the game in the long run.


Anne-Christine Wegener is an anti-corruption analyst based in Frankfurt. She is co-author, along with Laurence Cockcroft, of Unmasked – Corruption in the West (January 2017).

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