Akaash Maharaj read PPE at Oxford and now serves as Chief Executive Officer of the Global Organization of Parliamentarians Against Corruption
By Akaash Maharaj
(St Edmund Hall, 1990)
During my time at Teddy Hall, the College was exercising an extraordinary ascendency over the river and the playing fields. Personally, though, I enjoyed sleeping far too much to trudge down to the boat house at ungodly hours of the morning, and I enjoyed keeping my ears attached to my head far too much to risk the rugby pitch at any time of day.
Of all the improbabilities in my life since then, the fact that I went on to become a national athlete for Canada may top the list. It seems apt that it was in a sport as esoteric as Equestrian Skill-at-Arms.
While Oxford taught me few athletic skills, my time as President of the Student Union certainly trained me to lap myself in armour and endure the machinations of politics. It was, in retrospect, a vital preparation for the world of international sport.
Maharaj competing on horseback
Recently, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) convened a closed-door summit to debate the future of the global anti-doping regime. It was prompted by revelations of state-sponsored doping in the Russian sport system, which had erupted on the eve of the Rio Olympics.
Yet, the IOC declaration emerging from its four-hour conclave said nothing about halting those crimes or bringing their perpetrators to justice. Instead, the IOC demanded a fundamental repurposing of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), the institution that had had the audacity to investigate and expose the crimes.
WADA had called, in vain, for the IOC to ban Russia’s team from Rio. In the months since, the agency has endured a campaign of vilification by political actors and cyberattacks by hackers. More insidiously, too many of WADA’s ostensible sport partners appear to feel that it has betrayed them, by unmasking the ugly truths that lie behind impeccable fictions.
In this clash between the high ideals of sport and the low ruthlessness of politics, WADA holds the ethical high ground, but is catastrophically outmatched in its material resources.
In September, WADA convened a "think tank" in Lausanne, to advise them as they sally forth. The group included leaders from a broad range of international sport institutions and national governments. They invited me as an independent voice, drawing on my background as a former athlete and as the serving CEO of the Global Organization of Parliamentarians Against Corruption. I left those discussions with a sense that the mismatch between WADA's colossal mission and its pygmy budget is flatly absurd.
From an athlete’s perspective, we need a powerful WADA to protect us from exploitation. Often, the only reward for ethical athletes is to suffer the injustice of being cheated of our rightful victories. On the other side, athletes who are enabled or coerced into doping are eventually left damaged in body and broken in mind.
From a parliamentary perspective, we need an independent WADA to thwart subversion of international affairs. For better and for worse, sport is now a key instrument of statecraft, as much as diplomacy, defence, and intelligence. To the extent that sport becomes captive to political corruption, it becomes an instrument to prop up tyrannies and kleptocracies, an instrument to marginalise democracy and the rule of law. It becomes a weapon against the common interests of the human race.
I feel certain that WADA’s willingness to expose state-sponsored doping in Russia will come to be seen as a seminal victory in the struggle for sport integrity. Yes, WADA could have moved sooner and faster. However, this should not blind us to the fact that before WADA was created, no one ever moved against the chamber of horrors of the East German sport system.
But it would be folly to believe that WADA could strike a blow against some of the most powerful figures in sport and politics, without those figures striking back. They have done so, and they will continue to pummel WADA until it perishes or prevails over them.
The outcome will hinge on whether WADA will be able to rely upon the support of governments, athletes, and the IOC.
I take some comfort in the fact that the IOC has insisted that it supports WADA’s independence and capacity to prosecute its mandate. However, I must confess that that is not my impression when I read the invective penned by the IOC’s officers.
Instead, my impression is that the IOC is nursing a sense of grievance against WADA, of wounded pride and smouldering resentment, that the IOC can not forgive WADA for embarrassing its leadership during their moment in the sun. I fear that lurking behind the IOC’s subtly scripted declaration on remaking WADA, are designs to undermine and supplant it.
If there is any justice to this impression, then I should offer the IOC some simple advice: not everyone who stands up to you is your enemy, just as not everyone who flatters you is your friend.
Ultimately, WADA and the IOC will be one another’s salvation, or undoing. The only people who would prosper from a confrontation between the two institutions would be those who trade upon doping in sport.
Akaash Maharaj (St Edmund Hall, 1990) is CEO of the Global Organization of Parliamentarians Against Corruption. He was a triple gold medallist at the International Championships of Equestrian Skill-at-Arms. His personal web site is www.Maharaj.org.
Images © Louise Ross, Jenn Clarke, UNICEF Team Canada