MONTREAL – The culture of bullying and harassment collided with the Olympic universe after two strong-voiced women in the World Anti-Doping Agency received back-to-back rejections over the span of 48 hours.
Among conclusions from an investigation into one of those episodes was that WADA leaders need to undergo mandatory training “to help sensitize members as to how culture and gender differences and perceptions can affect communication.”
That recommendation came as part of a 58-page report into athletes’ chair Beckie Scott’s allegations of bullying. The report, delivered to the WADA foundation board Thursday, offered the latest illustration of how the largely white, largely male Olympic aristocracy can come off as tone-deaf and not fully aware of the needs of athletes and others in the movement.
“I think this experience really shows why people don’t come forward,” Scott told The Associated Press, referencing the longstanding problem of getting whistleblowers to feel comfortable standing up to help catch cheaters.
The report came out a day after Norway’s Linda Helleland, the most outspoken pro-athlete candidate in the race to replace Craig Reedie as WADA president, was left off the ballot in favor of two men in an election ultimately won by Poland’s Witold Banka.
“I think people who are outspoken and want change within WADA all experience the same thing,” Helleland told AP. “I’m worried for the future of WADA because we don’t have the balance when it comes to diversity of people. I think too many people who want to see changes … they just disappear.”
Reedie didn’t agree with the notion that WADA has a culture problem, or doesn’t listen to dissenting views. He blamed the tensions of the past two years on the “huge pressures that came from the Russian saga,” referring to allegations of state-sponsored doping by Russia at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
“That caused healthy debate within, particularly, the WADA executive committee,” Reedie said. “But I don’t think there’s any culture at all of continued disagreement of one group against another group.”
According to this week’s report, delivered by the law firm Covington and Burling LLP, Scott was not subjected to bullying or harassment during a contentious meeting last September, even though Francesco Ricci Bitti, an IOC member who also serves on WADA’s executive committee, directed behavior toward her that could be viewed as “aggressive, harsh or disrespectful.”
Some were skeptical of that conclusion.
“I hope it’s not the case that the new standard of behavior for this organization is one that can be ‘aggressive, harsh or disrespectful,’ as long as it doesn’t reach the threshold of bullying,” said Clayton Cosgrove, New Zealand’s representative on WADA’s foundation board. “But that’s the finding … and I’ve not seen any official apology on behalf of the organization for that.”
One of the IOC members targeted in Scott’s complaint, Patrick Baumann, died last October, about a month after the meeting that was being investigated. The other, Ricci Bitti, was in no mood for apologies, telling AP he didn’t want to comment, partially out of respect for his fallen friend.
“But if I did, you can imagine what it might be,” Ricci Bitti said. “The decision (no bullying) was the right one.”
At the heart of the episode was a tense exchange between Ricci Bitti and Scott at the meeting where WADA reinstated Russia’s banned anti-doping agency over Scott’s objections.
Ricci Bitti called Scott’s attitude “victimisitc,” and the report acknowledged that language cut more deeply with women who witnessed the exchange than with men.
Scott was an Olympic gold medalist in cross-country skiing, the winter sport that, outside of hockey, had more doping positives in 2017 than any other. She got robbed of her victory ceremony in 2002 by a pair of Russians who were later found to have doped. She sat there Thursday, stone-faced, while lawyers from Covington sat across the room and spelled out their conclusions, including a detailed deconstruction of her decision to not participate in the probe .
“It was demoralizing,” she said. “I was actually surprised they went to that degree.”
In calling for sensitivity training, the investigators wrote that while they understood there could be deep differences of opinion, that “dialogue on those matters – including criticism of others’ positions – can still be conducted with the utmost respect.”
WADA said it will consider the recommendations, which also include adopting a formal code of conduct and complaint policy for the executive board, at its next meeting.
The agency is hardly alone among those in the Olympic space grappling over how to deal with deteriorating relationships between administrators and athletes, men and women, Eastern and Western cultures.
In the United States, a sex-abuse scandal in gymnastics has shined a light on a culture that critics say exploits girls to win medals and make money. Some of those gymnasts, including champions Simone Biles and Aly Raisman, are finding a voice, but they’re still waiting for reforms that will give them more say in the system they compete in.
After the setbacks for women seeking reform at WADA, it’s clear the problems aren’t relegated to one country or one sport.
“There have been incidents, there have been difficult and tense discussions on some matters, but it’s not a culture,” WADA director general Olivier Niggli said. “We need to address that, and we’re going to look at those recommendations and see how we can implement them.”
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