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We like to play by the rules.
“I think most Canadians have confidence that the vast majority of our athletes in the Olympics are clean,” says Paul Melia, CEO of the Canadian Centre for Ethics and Sport, the agency tasked with overseeing Canada’s anti-doping efforts. “We have a [drug-testing] program in Canada that has been modelled around the world.
Still, drug use remains a dark cloud hovering over the Olympics. As recent doping scandals involving Russia, Kenya and other countries show, the litany of dishonesty, corruption and outright cheating seems unending. Beyond allegations of bribery and corrupt officials, the inability to ensure international competitions are fair and free of doping continues to threaten the public’s trust and interest in global competitions like the Olympics.
While Canada and many other countries appear to be at least attempting to play clean, some continue to mock the rules, prioritizing winning medals over encouraging drug-free athletes. The rewards, at least in the short term, can be great for those that break the rules: Russia topped all rivals with 33 medals at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, where at least 15 of its podium finishers were reportedly part of a state-run doping program.
Gardiner adamantly believes that with talent, exceptional coaching and a great support team, his athletes had a chance to win. But he didn’t always know if that was enough, particularly when he witnessed incredible improvements by rival competitors.
“Did I always feel that we would be on equal footing? No, I didn’t, quite frankly,” Gardiner says over the phone from Winnipeg. “We knew that even if the [rapidly improved] athlete wasn’t caught [doping] that the improvement throughout the season was… a bit of an outlier, so to speak. We thought, ‘Man, where did that come from?’ And that happens every Olympics, almost in every sport: ‘Where did that come from?'”
Former sprinter Anson Henry, who competed for Canada at the 2008 Olympics, says he was involved in a number of high-profile races where the winner eventually ended up testing positive.
“I didn’t feel like I was always on an even playing field,” says Henry, who now works for CBC Sports. “I didn’t really let it get to me or have any accusations in mind as far as who was dirty. Innocent until proven guilty, but I wasn’t oblivious to what was going on.
“I believe that Canada could be the cleanest team in the whole world. With the way [anti-doping efforts have] been set up and the amount of funding that they have put towards it, it is pretty much impossible to cheat in Canada.”
“Some races I would feel there is someone that I’m competing against that is probably cheating. Most races in Canada, especially national championships, it doesn’t even cross my mind. I think it’s clean,” says Coolsaet, who competed at the London Olympics and has run internationally for Canada since 2002. “At international races, there are certain athletes that people are suspicious of.”
Coolsaet says a number of factors contribute to suspicion, including dramatic improvements in personal best times and affiliation with certain coaches.
“If I were to switch to a coach who had doped people before and he helped me take three minutes off my personal best marathon time, that would be suspicious.” Coolsaet says. “There are athletes out there who have done that.”
Coolsaet’s suspicions aren’t without reason. For those who haven’t been following the seemingly daily drumbeat of bad news, this is what we know:
In Canada, all drug testing is carried out by the Canadian Centre for Ethics and Sport, which administers a code set forth by WADA. Other countries are supposed to be doing the same, but that’s not always the case, says Melia, the CEO of CCES.
“[The code] is not being implemented in every country, in every sport, the way it was designed. Part of what we have to do is help other countries develop their programs. But when you’re dealing with 200 countries around the world, you’re dealing with language, you’re dealing with culture.”
Canadian lawyer Richard McLaren agrees. One of the co-authors of WADA’s damming report on Russia’s state-sponsored doping program, McLaren says there is a wide variance in how the WADA code is treated globally.
“I think what Canada is doing is we’re applying the regime the way it`s supposed to be applied,” McLaren says. “The argument the Russians use is, ‘Well, everyone is [doping] so we’re going to do it. We`re not going to administer our program properly.”
“At the moment they don’t really have that jurisdiction or authority to impose immediate sanctions or take immediate actions when in extraordinary circumstances like [Russia’s],” says Scott, now the chair of WADA’s athletes committee. “But the athletes would like to see more immediacy. Six months is too long for a decision to come around.”
Scott has been hurt more than most by doping. The cross-country skier had to wait more than two years to get her gold medal from the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics after finishing third there, only to see the two skiers ahead of her test positive.
“I think athletes are generally discouraged,” she says. “And we have heard from them across all nations and across all sports, but especially from those going to Rio because there is a sense of urgency here.”
“I think that an athlete’s career is only so long. Many are probably looking at their last Olympic Games being in Rio. And you just feel [anti-doping efforts have] been inadequate in terms of providing them with the opportunity to compete on a level playing field.”
McLaren says WADA must grow teeth. That means moving beyond being simply a “regulator” that only encourages compliance with its code, to assuming responsibility for punishing cheaters, including the power to ban them from the Olympics and other events.
Under the current system, that job falls to the IOC and/or sport governing bodies like the IAAF.
“WADA needs the power to sanction non-compliant sports and countries. That`s an important missing piece,” says Melia, who thinks track’s governing body ought to ban Russians from the Rio Olympics.
“The athletes of the world are watching to see how the IAAF will respond.”