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Rob Koehler: Change is being demanded, and change has to come

Former World Anti-Doping Agency deputy director general Rob Koehler on Wednesday was named as head of a new organization called Global Athlete, which plans to mobilize athletes worldwide to lobby for change. Tom Shaw/Getty Images

Elite athletes can appear all-powerful in pursuit of their goals, yet in Olympic sport, they often find themselves near-powerless to help shape their working conditions with regard to anti-doping, commercial rights, and governance as a whole. In recent years, frustrated by their limited voice and galvanized by doping and corruption scandals, ad hoc athletes' groups have tried to make inroads with the national and international federations that oversee their sports -- efforts that have met with mixed success.

On Wednesday, former World Anti-Doping Agency deputy director general Rob Koehler of Canada was named as head of a new organization called Global Athlete, which plans to mobilize athletes worldwide to lobby for change. The initiative will be funded by FairSport, a non-profit group founded to encourage and protect whistleblowers in sports. British Olympic track cycling champion Callum Skinner is among several prominent athletes who will start forging connections with other competitors around the world.

Koehler built a reputation as an advocate for athletes' rights within WADA, even as the agency came under heavy criticism for conflicts of interest with the sports industry. We recently spoke to him about the fledgling group's ambitions.

Question from Bonnie D. Ford: Is this the prelude to organizing a global athletes' union?

Answer from Rob Koehler: The first thing we want to do is find out what the athletes want, so that's our exercise from the very beginning, to listen, engage and empower. Change is being demanded, and change has to come. And if that someday takes the form of an association athletes believe they need to have to support their rights, or to balance the imbalance of power, then nothing's off the table.

Q: There are clear challenges to unionizing or organizing a group that is so far flung, representing so many different cultures and sports. The concept's been floated before, but it never seems to go anywhere.

A: This is where I think we differentiate a little bit from others. We are not coming out of this launch with a preconceived notion of what athletes want and what we want to do for them. If we're going to do this right, we have to be open in our approach. We have to be humble and listen to all athletes from all countries, find out where the needs are and how to effectively move forward in a way that doesn't hurt athletes, but supports them. The day we start driving it from the top is the day we're losing our path. Just joining something like this for an athlete could potentially hurt them. Some will not want to attach their name. We're going to take our time, we're not going to over-promise and under-deliver, and we're going to make sure we do things reflecting what they want.

Q: Traditionally, it's been very hard to get athletes involved while they're still competing. Most activists have been retired, when they have more time, more perspective, and don't fear retribution from coaches or federations.

A: We have to be realistic. It's going to take a leap of faith for athletes who are focused on one objective, and who are being torn in different directions by different people in terms of creating their careers. Nothing like this has ever been put forward on a global basis. We are not linked with sport, we are not linked with government, we are not linked with anti-doping organizations. Hopefully, that provides a safer environment.

Some athletes who have retired wish they could have left sport in a better place. If we can get that message to the ones who are active -- be part of the change -- we may have some more interest and some athletes willing to step out of that comfort zone a little bit. What we've found in speaking with athletes is that the dissenting voice either gets sidelined, turned away, or there's an excuse made that they're not educated or informed and they don't get the bigger picture. That's a convenient argument, but I think athletes want a stake in the game moving forward. There is an uprising happening, and we want to support it.

Q: What are you able to say about why you left WADA, and what about your experience there led you to believe there was a need for this kind of group?

A: The reason for giving my resignation -- I'd prefer to save that for another day. One of my most satisfying projects at WADA was working with the Athlete Committee under the leadership of [chairwoman] Beckie Scott, who has really been a trailblazer in terms of making sure the athlete voice is heard and respected. They kept me honest, made me accountable, and would wake me up every now and then. Global Athlete has to be that -- taking what I learned from them. The priority list needs to come from the athletes. We don't want to be seen as wanting to hurt sport. We want to grow its long-term health and well-being.

Q: How are you going to get the feedback you need to draw up that priority list?

A: It's going to take on a couple forms. We'll set up an online form for athletes to submit information and we also have plans for regional forums where we can get out and have discussions and brainstorm, to make sure it does take into consideration the different needs and concerns in different countries.

Q: We've seen that people who speak up in global sports are often punished or ostracized. There's an ongoing investigation into how Beckie Scott has been treated at WADA. There's going to be resistance to what you're doing even if you set out with the most noble of intentions. What would you say to those who would view this as a threat?

A: You're right. There's probably going to be some resistance and skepticism and unknowns and concerns. Instead of discrediting and trying to undermine, let's have a conversation on how we move forward. If people really want to have a stronger, more athlete-centered approach to sport, they should be able to have that discussion openly in a way that's respectful.