AkaashAkaash 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.

AkaashMaharaj 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.is CEO of the Global Organization of Parliamentarians Against Corruption

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


By Vivian Grisogono

Well and beautifully said.

By RH Findlay (SEH)

"For better and for worse, sport is now a key instrument of statecraft,"

Then perhaps it is time to abolish such events as the Olympics, which seem more and more to be an increasing waste of national resources that are better spent elsewhere? We hear of corruption in international soccer, corruption in bidding to host the Olympics, doping in the Tour de France bribery in cricket, the use of "performance-enhancing" drugs in Australian Rules football etc etc etc.

Akaash Maharaj has both my sympathy and also my respect for his achievements, but these days major sporting events seem to be a battle between pharmacists on behalf of big money. Who cares if the UK's athletes win 20 gold medals or just 1 bronze; if English soccer players win the soccer world cup or don't make it to the quarter finals; or if English cricketers once again fail to beat their Australian counterparts in an Ashes test match? They are only games to be enjoyed for their own sake, after all; here today, gone tomorrow whilst providing an ephemeral and amusing distraction from the more serious cares of life.

If international sport has indeed become a weapon of statescraft, a weapon of petty tribal nationalisms, as was the case in the Berlin Olympics of 1936 and no doubt as in the case of the Beijing Olympics of not so long ago, then it has outlived its early promise as a celebration of international community and human endeavour.

By Ed Parker

The story of IOC and WADA is basically the way the world works. Truth is only valid when it suits. WADA is to be complimented for its progress towards some sort of integrity and authenticity. It has been my experience that prestige, achievement, politics, media success and rapid monetary returns are often the key concerns. If truth can still survive after jumping those hurdles, well and good, but if not, “sweep it under the carpet” and shut a blind eye. Will the world change, not really? Here’s for a little bit more integrity and honesty! It begins when each person decides to function that way, even in the smallest of things.

By Delana von Loth...

A charmingly-written and incisive article.

It is so rare to get insight into the politics of global sport from someone with experience as both a national athlete and an international statesman. I wonder how many people are left in the modern world with such a background.

Akaash Maharaj's advice to the IOC that "not everyone who stands up to you is your enemy, just as not everyone who flatters you is your friend" sounds like a cri de coeur of an idealist who has grown accustomed to locking horns with cynics. I hope the IOC is listening.

By Max Bishop

There are two sides to every story. WADA did a splendid job in exposing state-sponsored doping. But it was in error to call on IOC to ban the entire Russian team from the Rio Games. Natural justice demands that a sanction should not penalise the innocent. Many Russian athletes, notably those in minority sports, had an absolutely clean record in doping tests carried out by their International Federations. Should they have to carry the can for the sins of the Russian state and its corrupt officials? A blanket ban would have penalised whistle-blowers too. For all its shortcomings, the IOC got this one right in delegating decisions to the respective Federations.

By RH FIndlay

And a further thought. An Olympic marathon runner could not have won that gold medal if another Olympic marathon runner had not come last. And yet we only celebrate the first three runners. Coming last in an Olympic marathon is something very few of us can achieve, or perhaps even want to try to achieve. Why is the last runner not celebrated as an equal in bravery to the first? That person may never be able to win such a race because of simple physiology, or perhaps they cannot train at a "national institute of sport" or perhaps they have not had access to the appropriate legal pharmaceuticals (or diet) for their development, but they still ran that Olympic marathon.

If nothing else, all this petty nationalistic fanfare about "our" athletes having won a medal ignores completely the high achievement of all those others who came, who ran and who "lost". And that is to the loss of any sporting event where only the winners are celebrated. And with the emphasis solely on winning comes the potential use of drugs so as to win.

Idealistic? Not of the real world? The real world is what we make it.