Sporting regulator fights back against allegations of negligence
Early this morning we published a post covering shocking allegations from UK paper The Sunday Times and German broadcaster ARD/WDR regarding the prevalence of doping in international sport and the alleged lack of action from the International Association of Athletics Federations. We called on the IAAF to respond as quickly as possible, and respond they did, issuing a scathing statement that included several key points which shed a new light on the story:
• The published allegations were sensationalist and confusing: the results referred to were not positive tests. In fact, ARD and The Sunday Times both admit that their evaluation of the data did not prove doping.
• Professor Giuseppe d’Onofrio, one of the world’s leading haematologists working as an expert in the field of the Athlete Biological Passport, commented: “Ethically, I deplore public comments coming from colleagues on blood data that has been obtained and processed outside of the strict regulatory framework established by WADA which is designed to ensure a complete and fair review of ABP profiles. There is no space for shortcuts, simplistic approaches or sensationalism when athletes’ careers and reputations are at stake.”
• The data on which the reports were based was not ‘secret’ – the IAAF published a detailed analysis of this data more than four years ago.
• The Sunday Times’ story is based on the allegation that 6 specific athletes recorded suspicious results which we did not follow up. In fact, as the newspaper was told before publication, each test led to intensive follow up, as a result of which the 6 athletes were subsequently caught cheating and banned.
• The IAAF wants to stamp out all doping in sport and welcomes greater public debate. There is no perfect system for catching drug cheats, but the IAAF has been at the forefront of drug testing for many years. Under its pioneering Athlete Biological Passport (ABP) system, more athletes have been banned for cheating by the IAAF than all other sports federations and national anti-doping agencies put together.
While this was an excellent response from the IAAF, there’s no denying that significant damage was done by media coverage of the initial negative story. And, given the nature of the media, the organization’s reply is bound to receive less coverage than the more sensational “news” did over the past few days.
The crisis management lesson here? Don’t let ugly news come as a surprise to your stakeholders. Yes, the IAAF published these findings in a peer journal, but the vast majority of its stakeholders were completely unaware. Ditto for many of the stats shared in the responses issued today. This left the door wide open for The Sunday Times and ARD/WDR to put out a sensational story that seemed to outsiders to be legitimate “breaking news”. Whether this was truly a malicious way of grabbing paper sales and network views or simply sloppy reporting will likely never be known, but the bottom line is that when your organization’s reputation is on the line it’s up to you to put in work to prevent threats from gaining a foothold.
Erik & Jonathan Bernstein