Opinion: Maybe it’s time to ask: What if someone is wrongly accused?

International sport is in need of some Black Box Thinking, writes Jack Anderson

Opinion: Maybe it’s time to ask: What if someone is wrongly accused?

One of the more interesting books by a sports journalist in recent years was Matthew Syed’s Black Box Thinking. Published in 2015, the book’s premise was how sport could adapt from other industries, particularly aviation, in learning from catastrophic system errors.

Rather than denying mistakes had occurred or deflecting fault onto others, Syed argued that sports organisations should frankly interrogate what went wrong and use that analysis to ensure that such errors would not be repeated.

With the Winter Olympics beginning tomorrow, and after a build-up dogged by doping scandals, international sport is in need of some Black Box Thinking.

The background to the latest doping farrago is easily explained. But the lessons that need to be learned are not so simply analysed.

Allegations of a Russian state-sponsored doping conspiracy at the 2014 Sochi Olympics prompted the World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada) to commission an investigation by Canadian sports lawyer Richard McLaren. His report fed into the IOC’s investigation of the Sochi Olympics and its own disciplinary process.

This all led to the IOC’s decision in December 2017 to suspend the Russian Olympic Committee with immediate effect.

Nevertheless, the IOC also decided it would still be open to inviting individual Russian athletes to compete in Pyeongchang. But this would be under strict conditions that, if met, would only allow them to participate as “Olympic Athletes from Russia” (OARs).

An IOC panel appointed to oversee this process initially reviewed applications submitted by 500 Russian athletes — 111 were refused almost immediately. It now looks as if at least 169 Russian athletes will compete in Pyeongchang.

The IOC disciplined a separate tranche of 43 Russian athletes for serious doping offences. This week, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) held that in 28 cases, there was insufficient evidence to establish anti-doping infractions.

The CAS decisions were a bad defeat for the IOC.

With 169 Russians permitted to go to Pyeongchang by its own review panel, plus the 28 cleared by CAS, it could be said there are now 197 holes in the key pieces of evidence relied upon by the IOC — the McLaren report and that of Russian whistleblower Grigory Rodchenkov.

The Russian press has interpreted the CAS decision as meaning that Russia is reinstated in first place on the unofficial Sochi Olympics medal tally. It has also been pointed out that at the 2018 Games, the OAR “team” will be the third largest delegation at the Games.

After the CAS decision, the infighting began. IOC president Thomas Bach said reform may be needed to the way the court operates, a sentiment echoed by Wada vice-president Linda Hofstad Helleland.

So, sport is now in a politically charged and conflicted situation. Its doping prosecutor (Wada) and the executive that governs sports policy globally (IOC) have both said an inquiry is needed into the workings of sport’s judiciary. And that inquiry has been prompted by a CAS judgment that applied the anti-doping laws written by Wada and the IOC, but with whose interpretation they now disagree.

All the while, the carousel of Sochi-related appeals at CAS continues and likely for the duration of the Pyeongchang Games.

There are at least two Black Box Thinking lessons that can be learned from the above.

First, the International Paralympic Committee comprehensively banned Russia — ironically, a move upheld at CAS. Should the IOC have done the same? It didn’t and entered into an investigatory process which focused on individuals, There are questions about whether the IOC unnecessarily rushed that process.

Although the McLaren report laid out evidence of systemic doping, it was always going to be difficult for the IOC lawyers — McLaren said this himself — to then implicate individuals.

The analogy is to a money-laundering case. The authorities hear from a whistle-blower that a company is laundering through its accounts to the benefit of individual members. They raid the company’s HQ to access its files but find that the books have been shredded. The company in general is in breach of its legal obligations but making the link to individuals is now a painstaking task.

Similarly, it appears that samples from the Sochi lab were so contaminated that assigning them to individuals, meeting the necessary standard of proof, and doing so within a tight timeframe, could not be done by the IOC’s lawyers to CAS’s satisfaction.

The second lesson is broader. The current anti-doping system is premised largely on ‘how can we catch more athletes who we think are doping?’ In attempting to do so, the system sometimes overreaches itself, as we saw this week.

Maybe a better way to test the system’s integrity is for entities, such as Wada, to first ask, ‘what if we accuse someone in the wrong? What about a false positive?’

If the anti-doping system is scrutinised in this way, it may prompt uncomfortable questions about the scientific integrity and efficacy of current testing, the resources needed to independently prosecute doping, and the genuine political will to do so.

And yet, if those questions are answered honestly and the necessary checks and balances are put in place, the anti-doping system would be strengthened — and the mistakes of the recent past would be confined to the past.

An interesting Irish example of this is that of sprinter Steven Colvert. Colvert was banned from the sport for two years in July 2015 after testing positive for EPO. Since then several international scientists have questioned the scientific integrity of the finding. Sport Ireland has forcefully defended it as being fully in compliance with standard Wada practice.

One of the interesting things about Colvert’s case is that generally doping samples from athletes are now kept for a period of 10 years. This is to allow retrospective testing, which has proved a useful tool in catching drug cheats. Indeed, a number of Irish athletes, such as Rob Heffernan and Olive Loughnane, have benefited from this approach and have retrospectively received championship medals.

Bizarrely, the only samples not retained are from those athletes who test positive. Their samples are routinely destroyed after the anti-doping process is complete.

But why not keep them? Not only might they prove a useful scientific resource but they may also provide an answer, one way or another, in cases such as Colvert’s and, in the long term, underpin the integrity of the system as a whole.

All that being said, sports-doping allegations have a habit of tainting even the most well-meaning of approaches. In Syed’s book, one of the Black Box Thinking case studies was on the “marginal gains” emphasis in cycling’s Team Sky.

Retrospective testing of that idea has only just begun.

  • Jack Anderson is a member of the Court of Arbitration for Sport. A version of this article appeared on The Conversation

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