Athletes discuss ways to hold sports accountable in anti-doping fight

A fledgling proposal for a "charter of rights'' that would formalize international sport's obligation to provide a level playing field for athletes had its first airing at a World Anti-Doping Agency symposium this week.

Members of the WADA Athlete Committee, led by Olympic cross-country skiing champion Beckie Scott of Canada, introduced the concept at a workshop before anti-doping and international sports officials Tuesday in Lausanne, Switzerland. The day of meetings was not open to media.

Scott described it as an initial attempt to solicit feedback for an idea that has gathered steam in a season of athlete protests and pushback against the sluggish pace of reform in reaction to the Russian doping scandal.

Since the release of the full WADA-commissioned McLaren Report delving into organized doping in Russia, athletes in several winter sports have confronted their international federations for continuing with plans to hold major competitions there and failing to take a hard line against doping in general.

Scott and her committee have recruited Olympic speed skating icon and humanitarian entrepreneur Johann Olav Koss of Norway to support their effort. They envision a summary of rights that could be ratified in the WADA code, establishing a basis for athletes to hold sports accountable for a "duty of care" in anti-doping - an unexplored flip side of the way sports hold them responsible when they break anti-doping rules.

"There is no one document right now that outlines the rights of (Olympic) athletes,'' Scott told ESPN.com. "There are codes of conduct, rules of ethics and frameworks for marketing. This is abstract right now, in that we want to empower athletes and give them something legally binding.

"It is an industry, and many people who profit from the efforts of athletes. Yet athletes are the one stakeholder group that has no unified platform of rights we can look to.''

The charter isn't a prelude to labor organizing in the traditional sense, but Scott and Koss did not rule out the role that could play in the future. "It's not necessarily a bad idea, but there are a lot of ways to organize,'' Koss, the four-time Olympic gold medalist from Norway who now lives in Canada, told ESPN.

Adam Nelson, the U.S. Olympic shot put champion who received his gold medal nine years after the fact due to a re-test disqualification, called the charter concept "a good idea, a step in the right direction.'' But he would want to see it advance in tandem with unionizing efforts at some level -- a challenge that has thwarted Olympic athletes for decades.

"I don't see how you can have one without the other,'' said Nelson, long a vocal proponent of greater athlete activism.

WADA director general Olivier Niggli said the agency supports the charter initiative.

"Athletes are asking that more be done to secure and harmonize their rights around the world, and we believe that this a powerful, additional step in the right direction," Niggli said in an emailed statement.

Scott stressed that the charter concept is at a very preliminary stage. It was discussed by the overlapping memberships of the WADA and International Olympic Committee athletes' committees last weekend, and now will be farmed out for extensive consultation with athletes, federations and anti-doping agencies. Scott said one priority that has already surfaced in discussions is the need for Third World athletes to have equal access to anti-doping education.

There is no draft language yet, but there is a working acronym: COAR, or Charter of Athlete Rights. Ultimately, Scott said, she hopes such a charter would be adopted by international sports federations and major event organizers.

Koss, 48, founded the widely respected global educational program Right to Play, and recently became involved in a new foundation committed to supporting sports whistleblowers, FairSport.

He also was involved in WADA's early years as a board member.

The charter idea is part of an overdue effort to "lift the voices of athletes,'' Koss said. Its absence until now "in some ways is incredible and in other ways, it's not. In principle, sport has always been for the athletes, but a lot of actions we've seen over the last couple of years are not in the best interests of athletes any more.''