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Doping’s Unholy Governors

For an organisation founded on ideals of transparency and fair play, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) has been taking on water. A bombshell report of investigative journalism by the New York Times (NYT) and Germany’s public broadcaster ARD has brought WADA and its governance structure under the spotlight.

By Charles Dane, Policy and Government Relations Advisor, Governance Institute

For an organisation founded on ideals of transparency and fair play, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) has been taking on water. A bombshell report of investigative journalism by the New York Times (NYT) and Germany’s public broadcaster ARD has brought WADA and its governance structure under the spotlight.

The report revealed 23 elite Chinese swimmers tested positive for the illegal substance trimetazidine (TMZ) in early 2021, approximately seven months before the Tokyo Olympic Games. Samples were taken during an invitation only Chinese national swimming competition over the 2020-2021 new year period.

According to the New York Times:

‘TMZ is a prescription medication designed to help people with heart disease. It is included in a category of performance-enhancing drugs that come with the harshest penalties. It can help athletes increase stamina and endurance and hasten recovery times and is difficult to detect because it quickly clears through the body.

To understand this latest Chinese doping scandal, read the fantastic works of the NYT and ARD, as well as listen to this episode of the Inside with Brett Hawke podcast with one of the key journalists Nick Butler.

Irrespective of this particular scandal, there are significant governance concerns at WADA that need examination.

These governance issues have been an open secret for years and stem from WADA’s initial structure and funding model, established in 1999.

The agency was formed in 1999 with the International Olympic Committee, comprising a 50-50 split in funding and between the ‘Olympic Movement and Governments of the world’.

WADA’s financial reliance on the same sports federations it is meant to police raises many alarms over their commitment to vigorous oversight.

Governance Reforms

Since then, have been many genuine efforts by WADA to uplift its governance standards.

In 2020, WADA established a working group to review WADA governance reforms, which subsequently made recommendations in late 2021. These were agreed and the working group mandate extended to provide multiple reports since then.

WADA now has a dedicated page on its website to ‘Governance Best Practices’ where it emphasises three key principles:

  1. Transparency
  2. Athlete Representation
  3. Accountability

Principles 2 & 3 have significantly improved in the past few years, but transparency is the poisoned chalice for WADA.

They are hamstrung by their delegation of testing to individual country anti-doping agencies, like USADA and CHINADA among others.

WADA maintains that their executive meetings are open to the public and all investigations published, but without the ability (or willingness) to properly investigate domestic doping decisions, WADA can never truly be transparent with the public.

There are good initiatives and any suggestion that WADA is a lost or toothless organisation is missing the fundamental point.

Good processes and policies are fantastic to have, but it is actions that prove the governance standards. WADA has been unable to shake the perceptions that it lacks independence and continues to leave itself open to allegations it doesn’t treat all nations’ athletes the same.


When it comes to policing the scourge of performance-enhancing drugs in international sports, does WADA apply one standard for all? Or do the biggest, most powerful athletic programs get a pass?

The initial response from WADA when Russia was accused of running a vast, state-sponsored doping program began the downward spiral of trust. WADA was seen by many as far too restrained and deferential compared to the gravity of the accusations.

In his 2015 Commission Report on Russia’s systematic doping at the 2012 London Olympics, founding WADA President Dick Pound suggested that WADA has favoured consensus over confrontation and is ‘unduly tentative with signatories in requiring compliance and timely action’.

WADA ‘continues to face a recalcitrant attitude on the part of many stakeholders that it is merely a service provider and not a regulator’ and ‘needs to continue its educational role, but also to insist on compliance by all signatories’.

Evidence is now mounting that WADA has exhibited an uneven hand in cracking down on systematic doping by nations like China, compared to less influential countries. In doing so, the Agency has opened itself to charges of hypocrisy and claims that political and economic motivations are distorting its investigative processes.

Following the release of the recent Chinese Swimming NYT report, Travis Tygart, the head of USADA, gave a statement to the NYT, criticising WADA:

‘It’s hard to view this as anything other than a whitewash given the ongoing threats and attacks. Clearly, it’s precooked. WADA’s statement exemplifies the problem with the current system.

WADA does not follow its own rules, and then it gets to handpick an attorney from its own backyard and also sets the scope of that handpicked attorney’s review.’

This has flared a burgeoning anti-doping civil war, with Dick Pound responding to Tygart at an emergency WADA meeting:

‘That accusation, bereft of any truth, has but a single purpose: to deliberately damage the reputation of WADA. To claim that WADA has in some way inappropriately favoured China is completely false.

USADA is financed by the United States government; that government currently has a chilly relationship with China’s government. Could there be a connection?’

Tygart maintaining his position, called for immediate governance reform, responding to Pound that:

‘Trust comes from truth and transparency, not obfuscation and childish bluster’.

In international athletic circles, the revelations were greeted with a sort of moral whiplash. Here was an exposé of bad actors but delivered by an ethics body of increasingly dubious reputation.

Once again, WADA faces its classic dilemma: will it risk alienating a major player by meting out harsh sanctions? Or will it chart a timid course, potentially further eroding its public standing?


Such allegations strike at WADA’s very reason for being – to serve as a truly autonomous watchdog shining harsh light on any athlete, team or nation circumventing the rules.

How can it reclaim its moral legitimacy when the perception lingers that the agency is willing to tread lightly with the sporting powers that help bankroll it?

This financial bind to the same Olympic sports federations it polices has raised uncomfortable optics of conflicts of interest, no matter how much WADA insists it operates with independence.

This crisis of credibility could hardly come at a worse time for WADA, with the 2024 Paris Olympics two months away and public confidence in the body already fraying. If fans, sponsors and, most important, athletes themselves lose faith that the anti-doping rules are being equitably enforced, it threatens to undermine the integrity of the entire Olympic movement.

And lost in all of WADA’s governance issues are the athletes. The CHINADA report clearing the 23 Chinese swimmers of intentionally doping might be truthful, and those athletes clean. WADA, though, have set them up to be the enemies of both crowd and media when they compete in Paris, a completely unjust consequence because of WADA’s struggles with transparency.

Now we are left to question whether WADA itself has enough buoyancy left to uphold its founding mission to preserve the spirit of sport internationally.

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