It was an anti-doping summit hailed as “monumental” by the people who organized it, even though it was accused of failing to provide representation to the very people it targeted.
At the White House on Wednesday, athletes and sports officials from numerous countries met at an event organized by the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) and the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA).
The topic: calls to reform the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) in light of the decision to reinstate Russia in September.
READ MORE: WADA reinstates Russian anti-doping agency, ending 3-year suspension
The discussion played out predictably.
We heard criticism from Irish Sports Minister Shane Ross that WADA had “betray[ed] its own principles” and been “soft” in reinstating Russia.
We heard more veiled threats from the head of USADA, Travis Tygart, that the US could end its contribution to WADA’s budget (said to be $4.5 million out of a total $34 million).
USADA boss Travis Tygart. © Getty Images / Alex Wong
We heard testimony from athletes – much of which was genuine, heartfelt and powerful – that they had been cheated of medals by dopers.
What we didn’t hear, however, was fair representation from WADA itself in a debate that it branded “one-sided.”
"It certainly seems that the only ones invited are those that are now questioning WADA’s governance because they are not in agreement with the democratic decision that WADA’s Executive Committee took concerning RUSADA’s reinstatement," a WADA
A summit espousing values of unity and representation appears to have forgotten the part about inviting the people on the other side of the debate.
READ MORE: Whopping stash of WADA banned pills found in Norwegian hospital
Tygart hit back by
that WADA officials had in fact been invited, pointing to the presence of WADA vice-president Linda Helleland, among others. It was just another WADA ruse, he claimed.
USADA CEO Travis Tygart’s response to WADA’s comments on the emergency anti-doping summit at The White House today. #TheReformers @Lindacath @BeckieScott4 @gretaneimanas @chiel_warners pic.twitter.com/0hBZc6LTA7— USADA (@usantidoping) October 31, 2018
But even that was a shot in the foot, as it was reported that Helleland was not there in an official capacity representing the organization.
She was also a vocal critic of the decision to reinstate Russia, giving further credence to WADA’s insistence that the White House event had the distinct ring of an echo chamber.
READ MORE: Russia launches legal bid to overturn athletics ban after WADA reinstatement
As for Russia, it had a presence in the form of Yulia Stepanova, the drug cheat turned whistleblower who has been feted for supposedly exposing the dark heart of her homeland’s doping system.
None of this is to dismiss the genuine voices of athletes who have fallen victim to drug cheats, including Russian ones.
US 800m runner Alysia Montano gave a powerful speech on how she finished fifth at the Olympic Games in London in 2012, behind two Russian athletes accused of doping.
Others, such as British gold medal-winning cyclist Callum Skinner, said WADA and the IOC – which provides half of the anti-doping body’s funding – should put athletes front and center.
“Who and what does Wada and the IOC truly represent? The number one answer should be the athletes,” Skinner said.
There are legitimate calls for WADA to be reformed; many athletes feel “bullied” and overlooked by the organization, which should never be the case.
But the voices heard at the White House are not the only ones in the debate, no matter how much they proclaim "unity" or push hashtags such as #TheReformers.
READ MORE: ‘Our athletes are the real winners’ – head of Russian anti-doping agency on WADA ruling
There are also the voices of thousands of clean Russian athletes who have suffered due to the actions of others – and who would continue to suffer if many meeting on Wednesday had their way.
Indeed, there were people in the White House walls who would not be satisfied if Putin himself publicly admitted that he was behind the whole thing all along.
That is not going to happen – not least because it isn’t true.
But instead of accepting that and allowing Russia to rehabilitate its anti-doping system – which it is clearly taking steps to do – we have a campaign that risks going round in circles, with Russia and any who support it being permanently sidelined.
There is also the striking symblism of the White House hosting Wednesday's gathering, surely ironic amid claims that Russia has been the one to manipulate the situataion politically.
The WADA and Russia debate has raged on elsewhere, of course, and will continue to do so, but in Wednesday’s venue the participants found a willing conduit for their campaign.
The US funds WADA handsomely, and in American parlance, money means influence.
Ultimately, those who met yesterday will claim they are taking matters into their own hands. But in reality, many of them are merely showing bitterness about an organization just because it made a decision – democratically – that they didn’t like.
By Liam Tyler