NORTH CAROLINA — It was a story that rocked athletics, and sport, to its core. Russia was accused of state-sponsored doping in November last year.
Russia’s involvement at the Olympics in Rio hinges on World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada) and the IAAF being satisfied that Russia has made genuine changes. So far the outcome is far from clear, with Wada saying Russia still has some way to go.
Zimbabwean gold medalist and IOC member Kirsty Coventry sits on the Wada commission and foundation board and she admits that she was surprised by the level of doping she’s discovered since taking up the role.
“Sitting on the commission has really opened my eyes — previously I was very much proud of the fact that swimming was a very clean sport, but I don’t necessarily have the same feeling going into Rio. I didn’t realise the amount of systematic doping — not just in Russia, but in other countries.”
“As athletes, we do everything we can in training to make sure that we’re at our peak and to be in the last six months of my career and recognising people’s names in tests — that they’ve been caught doping — is a little bit hard, but it’s a challenge and with social media now, no one can hide — that’s a good thing.”
“If you are cheating, we will catch you; it might not be right now but we are working on new intelligence and while it’s hard to ask people to be brave enough to do so, if you know it’s happening, come to us and give us the information to help us stop the cheats.”
Coventry also spoke about the new Olympic plans to reach more people than ever before, by moving its coverage further into the digital world.
2016 will see the launch of new over-the-top (OTT) platform The Olympic Channel, which will offer Olympic sports 24 hours a day.
It’s hoped that the channel will bring in a younger audience, to perhaps discover new sports or even take them up.
“I think we need to stay relevant in today’s times and The Olympic Channel will allow us to reach the younger generation and be able to hear back. With social media it’s opened so many things and to be able to get honest feedback will really be helpful — especially when it’s coming from the younger generation that are techno-savvy and maybe aren’t playing as many sports.”
“The president said ‘get the couch potatoes active’ and ‘get people re-engaged in community’ and hopefully those are some of the things we can achieve with The Olympic Channel.”
Having grown-up and discovered the sport of swimming in Zimbabwe, Kirsty went on to gain the most medals for a female swimmer in history while also becoming Africa’s most successful Olympian of all time.
She now sits on both the Zimbabwe Olympic Committee and National Olympic Committees of Africa and says working to promote the Olympic movement across the continent has its difficulties.
“It comes with more challenges than developing sport in first world countries; I have the opportunity to live and train and see different sports and how they are run in a first world country, the knowledge and experience I’ve gained to take back and improve our sporting structures and improve the mind-set that a sport you’re good at can become a profession — I think that’s something we struggle with in Africa.”
“I think sport can play a huge role in equality and in pure development and strengthening of community; people talk about the role of Rugby in 1995, I got to see that in 2004 and 2005 when Zimbabwe was going through hard times — but when I got home it’s like the problems didn’t exist as everyone just wanted to celebrate.”
“The power sport has in educating and bringing about equality is truly significant, it’s just a case of being able to find a means to create that environment.”
As with almost every olympic games, any issues regarding infrastructure or safety are heightened, with UCI chairman Cookson admitting he is “concerned” about the velodrome for the Rio games.
Kirsty — who will be competing in her final games before retiring in Brazil — believes there are no concerns on the aquatics side.
“The aquatics centre from what I’ve heard there have been no issues, they held a test event a couple of weeks ago, the roof is a little bit open so it might be a bit cool but as swimmers, we’re used to that; I think from an aquatics side of things, it’s looking very good.”
The “Golden Girl” of Zimbabwe has only been a member of the IOC since 2012, so while she may have cemented her legacy as an athlete, perhaps her legacy within the IOC is just beginning.