Sunday, 6 March 2016

Quest for Integrity?

Fans of cycling had to endure years or it. Followers of the big North American professional sports (and NCAA "revenue" sports) had to price it into the bargain of fanship beginning decades ago. Even the campy demi-sport of figure skating had to confront it a few years back. Fans of our sport-- track and field and road racing-- have felt its gnaw from time to time, but we have managed to keep it from unsettling our deepest foundations, or at least to believe in the integrity of our sport's most important structures. Until last year.

I'm talking about the systematic loss of integrity, not of individual athletes (which has been constant in sport since its ancient inceptions), but of those charged with safeguarding the very administrative edifice that makes it possible to engage in meaningful physical contests on a large scale in the first place. Because sport is pure artifice, the existence of rules that can be established, enforced, and adjudicated with the utmost fairness, and in the general interest of the whole sport community, are a sine qua non. When those who play the game break the rules and are sanctioned, the game becomes stronger. When those who are charged with safeguarding the rules ignore or break them, the opposite occurs. And this extends all the way from the adjudication of sport within arena of play itself to distribution of the basic resources necessary to enter the arena of play on as equal a footing as possible.

Loss of integrity within the administration of sport begins when administrators themselves begin to see themselves as competitors rather than neutral arbiters, such as when they use their positions for self-enrichment, or to give "their" athletes a leg up. In the world of our sport, the Nazis were the first to see the full potential of international sport as propaganda, but it was the Cold War rivalry between the USA and the USSR in the middle of the last century that produced the gravest threats to the integrity of our sport. During this period, competition became not just inter-national but inter-systemic. The result was that scientists and coaches, often under the auspices of the military, were given rein to explore means of performance enhancement that threatened to turn sports into a contests of technological rather than athletic superiority. But our sport survived the Cold War era, and the means to police existential scientific threats to its integrity, in the form global administrative bodies marshaling growing technological expertise, were eventually devised. After the Cold War, increasing commercial incentives created both the pressure and the opportunity for individual athletes and their coaches (with the possible/probable connivance of large corporate sponsors)to find illicit pharmacological advantages. Still, while always far from perfect, these global administrative structures proved sufficient, at the very least, to keep the worst kinds of cynicism at bay and to preserve at least some hope for a future of clean and fair sport.

But then came the revelation in late 2015 that the top leadership of the IAAF (the international governing body for the sports of track and field, road racing, and cross country) had for years been taking bribes from individual athletes in return for the covering up of positive drug tests. These athletes were then permitted to continue to compete, and to win medals and money, in IAAF sanctioned championships, including the Olympic Games. There is also now credible and mounting evidence that the IAAF and the IOC engaged in the rigging of international bid hosting competitions. These revelations were made at the same moment that soccer's global corruption scandal (which had apparently been hiding in plain sight for at least a decade)was erupting across the headlines. Like FIFA (soccer's global administrator), the IAAF sought to simultaneously limit damage to their reputations by denying specific charges while also pledging reform. Those at the centre of these scandals may or may not see the inside of jail cells, but the damage wrought to the ideals of global sport is now irreversible, whether or not anyone is ever held to account criminally.

As Above, So Below?

For those of us toiling at the national level of elite sport-- as athletes, coaches, or organizers-- the extremity of the rot at the sport's administrative pinnacle seemed, in an instant, to explain rather a lot. If the IAAF had been taking bribes to cover up failed drug tests and rigging multi-million dollar bidding contests, it made perfect sense that national and regional governing bodies would feel a kind of moral license (or, at the very least, a sense of impunity) to engage in their own appropriately scaled forms of corrupt behaviour. Thus, in huge federations like those of Russia and the USA, allegations of widespread, systemic doping and undue corporate influence (leading to such things as the tolerance or doping and/or the hiring of suspected or convicted dopers as coaches and administrators) respectively seemed entirely plausible, as did much more petty allegations, like those against long time Nike athlete and coach Alberto Salazar for attempting (successfully, it would turn out) to influence officials in support of his athletes mere weeks after Nike closed an unprecedented 23 year, 460 million dollar deal to sponsor (in effect, to purchase)the governing body of American athletics, the USA Track and Field Association.

Here in Canada, with its small and dispersed population and it official mythology of politeness and fair play, we could expect any unethical behaviour among our coaches and administrators to be more much more petty than grand, if no less flagrant and knowing. (As an aside, extremely brazen "ends-justifying-means" styles of leadership in Canada had 10 years of encouragement by example at the highest levels, as our federal government routinely eschewed even the appearance of fair play in its dealings with declared "enemies" both within and without).

"Speed River works hard to be the best. They are professional and hyper organised.

The haters run mom and pop clubs and then whine when the speed river machine takes (legal) advantage of their own size and abilities to get what they want.

I know it sucks to always have to face an opponent with more resources, connections and influence, but that club was built out of nothing.

It is open to anyone else in Canada to try to take the crown from speed river - go for it rather than whine about these provincial little details."

Although posted anonymously on the "world famous" message board of, the comment above almost certainly comes from someone intimately familiar with the Canadian athletics scene, including the "controversies" involving the club it references. And, judging by its similarity in theme and tone to the responses of some club members to the many allegations of unethical behaviour that are the theme of the thread in which it appears (when there has been any response at all), it does pretty clearly express the views of many of the club's hardest core supporters. It's also a pretty pristine crystallization of the zeitgeist of our sport's leadership today: 1. "Professionalism"= winning by means of "taking (legal?) advantage of (your) size and (ability) to get what (you) want"; 2. The people you shoulder aside in getting what you want are small time losers or "haters", who hide their fear or inability to "do what it takes" behind a facade of "principle"; 3. Rules and other ethical barriers are petty details ("provincial little details") that are, or should be, of no concern to winners like you; 4. Everything you do is justified by how determined you are and how hard you work (again, others are slacking losers only pretending to care about rules and principle in order to hold you back; you, on the other hand, are all business, all the time!).

I invite readers to follow the links in the above thread for details on the serial breaches of ethics at which the leadership of this group has been dead centre. One of these links will take you back to this very space, wherein I detailed my experience in helping to expose and undo a clumsy attempt at collusion between Athletics Canada and Speed River to rig the bidding for an important national hosting opportunity (our National XC Championships, from 2015 to 2018). Since I wrote about that experience, AC and Speed River were caught attempting exactly the same thing in relation to another national championship bidding process. Once again, the complainant (Steve Weiler of London Runner) won the right to host on appeal. But this time the attempted bid-rigging was officially alluded to. In his written statement, adjudicator Ross Dumoulin used the phrase "led down the garden path" to describe Athletics Canada's attempt to deceive Weiler and engineer a winning bid for Speed River.

Meanwhile, for the past few months, clear evidence of irregularities in the nomination of athletes for funding from the provincial government (the Quest for Gold program) has come to light (although "come to light" may not be the best description, since they were always there in plain sight). As with the National XC affair, these irregularities include possible conflict of interest involving the participation of members or Speed River on relevant committees (in 2013/14, there were two members of Speed River on the National Competitions Committee that initially awarded the four year bid to Speed River). This time, senior Speed River coach/executive Chris Moulton participated on a committee in which, for the second year in a row, Speed River athletes were nominated for funding in spite of clearly not having met all of the points-based criteria (details of the application guidelines and procedures can be found in the above link)*. In spite of repeated requests for explanations from committee members (whose names and affiliations are also available at the above link), and apart from protestations that "Ontario's best athletes have been supported", no clear explanation of these apparent anomalies has been forthcoming. (If there were a link, I would have provided it). Again, it would seem that the culture of sports admin in the new period dictates that if you are not among the inner circle of hard-driving "winners", you are merely a trouble-making "whiner" entitled to nothing by way of transparency.

As of writing, final decisions on an undisclosed number of official appeals of the original Quest for Gold nominations are a week late and counting. There is no formal way to find out the nature or grounds of these appeals, and the committee members who vetted the original applications maintain complete silence, including refusing to release or otherwise post any information on the process by which these original nominations were made. Even if all of the questionable nominations are reversed on appeal, serious questions will remain about the process that led to them in the first place-- questions that go to the heart of how our sport is administered in this new era.

And part of the newness of the era is the difficulty of effectively demanding accountability within a massively fragmented media-scape. Even the largest and most serious allegations (e.g. those around doping and bribery) are often initially made by maverick journalists and other whistle-blowers, who must then run a gauntlet of attacks, both open and anonymous, on their credibility. For perpetrators, the options of counter-attack (anonymous and otherwise), evasion, or simply brazening out the allegations until the spectators move on are all available. Then, of course, there is the daily torrent of more serious bad behaviour behind which to conceal one's petty transgressions. As for the option of complaining within formal administrative structures, this is increasingly a mug's game. You often end up complaining to the very people you're complaining about.

And, to be sure, there are many worse things afoot, even in Canada, than the unethical behaviour of a few sport administrators. Yet, the beauty and simplicity of the activity being administered (in this case, the efforts of young athletes to pursue their dreams in the world's oldest contests of athleticism), and the relative pettiness of the material stakes involved (few if any people's lives or livelihoods are at stake in who wins or loses a few thousands dollars here and there), makes the bad behaviour all the more unfortunate. Never mind the moral imperative, the fact that we can all easily afford to put ethics above all else, and, in turn, to model ethical behaviour for athletes themselves, makes the failure of some of us to do so all the tawdrier. What, in the larger scheme of things, could the leaders of an outfit like the Speed River Track Club possibly hope to gain that would be worth risking their reputation in the way that they clearly have over the past few years? If this is what "winning" looks like, I'm happy to remain a loser.

*In the interest of full disclosure, PK had one athlete (Alex Wilkie) nominated for Quest for Gold funding for this year, and one athlete (Julie-Anne Staehli) fail to have her funding renewed as a result of a new requirement-- that continuing athletes improve their personal best time in the event for which they are receiving support. Not having run a personal best in the 3,000m Steeplechase, Julie-Anne, as per the rules, did not apply for a renewal of her funding, in spite having made a concerted effort to accumulate significant points for her performances at our provincial and national championships (a key component of scoring in the Quest for Gold application process). Because she did not apply in the first place, Julie-Anne was given no way to appeal for special consideration based on evidence of serious irregularities emerging after the application deadline-- irregularities that involved athletes not only applying for but actually being nominated for funding without having met the basic requirements of the application process.