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Can sport's anti-doping movement survive latest allegations?

MONTREAL -- Kirsty Coventry is headed to the 2016 Rio Olympics for what she intends to be her fifth and final trip to the Games. She's one of the most accomplished athletes in her sport, yet she has anything but peace of mind.

Coventry is a 32-year-old swimmer from Zimbabwe, an NCAA champion who competed for Auburn University, a four-time Olympian and seven-time medalist. She serves as an athlete representative for the World Anti-Doping Agency and the International Olympic Committee.

She couldn't attend Thursday's WADA Foundation Board meeting, so she enlisted retired Paralympic sledge hockey champion Todd Nicholson to read aloud what she had written:

"I have no confidence that I will be competing on a level playing field in Rio.

"We [WADA] market and portray ourselves as the 'Organization for Clean Sport' and 'Protecting Clean Athletes' but we are not. ... We either need to get full autonomy and independence to take actions, or we need to stop marketing ourselves as the organization that will get things done."

Coventry's harsh words, delivered by proxy to a silent audience in a hotel conference room, were soon followed by a lunchtime dump truck delivery by the New York Times. In an explosive account, Grigory Rodchenkov, director of the national anti-doping laboratory in Moscow who also oversaw operations at the Sochi 2014 lab, described his participation in methodical sabotage of drug testing to aid dirty Russian athletes.

The events of the past week might make the WADA leadership yearn for the halcyon days earlier this spring when their chief distractions were meldonium concentration in urine and a few laboratories that needed a timeout.

"Some have been deflecting and putting their heads in the sand, but it's hard to look away now," said two-time Olympic 400-meter hurdles champion Edwin Moses, a longtime United States anti-doping advocate and policy strategist.

He said this with no hint of gloating. On the contrary, Moses is deeply dismayed that the ingrained doping culture he first studied on an official task force visit to Russia in 1989 was an infection that never got knocked out and still saps his fellow athletes.

Perception versus reality

Not so long ago, there was a growing perception that Russia's invitation to the party in Brazil was a done deal, dictated by superpower influence, despite the complete defrocking of its track and field federation via WADA's independent commission investigation.

Now the pressure to exclude Russia, and in particular its track and field team, from Rio will grow. The authority to do so lies not with WADA but with the IAAF, track and field's governing body, and ultimately with the IOC.

The anti-doping establishment's credibility will leak away if Russia is allowed to compete. Its athletes already have reaped whatever benefits accrue from long-term doping, and now may have benefited from a semi-hiatus in testing.

The UK Anti-Doping Agency, brought in to oversee testing, has found logistics daunting in a vast country with only 10 doping control officers available. RUSADA, Russia's suspended anti-doping agency, has been slow to foot the bills. Some cities are sealed off by security forces, thwarting DCOs.

Adding to the evidentiary pile-on are Rodchenkov's dramatic claims. The ex-lab director admitted destroying more than 1,400 samples when he was interviewed by WADA investigators probing Russian track and field last year, but reserved the most lurid and damning details about the system for the filmmaker who helped him flee to the U.S. shortly after the WADA report was published. The narrative reads more like a Cold War-era James Bond screenplay than the basis for a documentary.

WADA didn't green-light a wider investigation of Russian sport until this week -- six months after its independent commission report first aimed a strobe at state-sponsored doping, and 17 months after the German television network ARD aired the story of Russian whistleblowers Vitaly and Yuliya Stepanov.

Beckie Scott, the retired Canadian cross-country skier who chairs the WADA athlete committee, took the agency to task for its recent passivity. This is the second time the group has pushed for all of Russian sport to go under the microscope because of what Scott described as "the utter, complete implausibility of this system being in place to service only track and field athletes."

"If we do nothing, if we don't investigate, lead investigations and not just follow up on television programs, if we don't sanction, then we lose not only athletes' belief in the system, but we lose the belief that winning clean is possible," Scott said Thursday, her tone professional but laced with audible frustration.

She is an authority on the subject, having exchanged her Salt Lake City 2002 bronze medal for a silver and then a gold when the two Russians who finished ahead of her were disqualified for doping.

Yet despite that experience, Scott supports a petition from Yuliya Stepanov -- who served a two-year suspension for doping infractions -- to race her former specialty, the 800 meters, at the European Athletic Championships in July, and in Rio the following month, under a neutral flag.

"We give second chances to other people, and in light of the contribution she's made to the anti-doping landscape, she should have exceptional privileges," Scott said. "Not many people have done as much as she has, and sacrificed as much."

The Stepanovs helped unmask the doping enablers in the Russian sports establishment, fled out of safety concerns and took refuge in the U.S.

WADA, mindful of that experience and trying to scramble out of reactive mode, has committed to upgrading its staff training, communications and investigatory capacity with regard to processing tips and handling informants. To be fair, the agency has no means or mandate to put whistleblowers in anything akin to a witness protection program.

"What incentive is there for dopers, or even the few people that may know who is doping, to come forward?" Coventry posed in her written remarks.

The answer is currently: not enough. So the way sport treats the Stepanovs from here on in could be crucial.

'Time and time again I have been disappointed'

It was a comment easy to miss during Thursday's marathon meeting.

The WADA board had just absorbed an update on the so-called "single testing authority." That's the concept proposed by the IOC to create one unified, independent entity to coordinate sample collection from athletes worldwide.

The idea of doing a gut remodel on WADA's merely 16-year-old house is either terrific or ludicrous, depending on who is asked. One thing everyone agrees on is that no one knows how to pay for it. IOC president Thomas Bach initially proposed that WADA simply move testing and results management under its umbrella. That is adamantly opposed by most established national anti-doping agencies as a conflict of interest. "WADA can't be a player and a referee at the same time," said Joseph de Pencier, CEO of the international association of NADOs.

Nevertheless, internal talks have been convened and a feasibility study is underway. During the discussion portion of the agenda item, three-time Olympic slalom canoe champion Tony Estanguet of France, now retired, spoke up. He wanted to make sure athletes had representation on the steering committee.

The fact that he had to ask hints at the disenfranchisement felt by many Olympic athletes. Long term, will they look inward, ponder voting with their feet and explore ways to organize for collective bargaining?

Until and unless that materializes, sanctioning and consequences will tend to be disproportionate. Athletes will continue to be suspended for tainted supplements and recreational drugs while sport federations and countries get off the hook for major dysfunction, because of money and geopolitical dynamics.

Athletes traditionally don't care to dwell on those issues in public. They don't want to spare the time and energy. They don't want to sound like they're making excuses. They want to believe they can win on a given day, regardless of their opponents' possible chemical enhancement. They would rather not let it rent space in their heads.

But the chorus is rising. The statement Coventry sent for Nicholson to read included blunt messages she received from other swimmers, including several U.S. Olympians.

From butterfly specialist Cammile Adams: "I personally feel that WADA has let down every clean athlete in sport."

From 4x100-meter freestyle relay silver medalist Jimmy Feigen: "I have continued to place a lot of hope in the many opportunities for WADA to step in and clean up the system. Time and time again I have been disappointed."

From veteran sprinter and Sydney 2000 gold medalist Anthony Ervin: "As athletes we open ourselves to the invasion of our bodies for the sake of a cleaner sport; yet all these invasions serve only as a route to despair when one after another, athletes, in particular star athletes, are created and protected by their State."

Ervin's malaise would have been reinforced by last Sunday's episode of "60 Minutes," which revealed that Vitaly Stepanov furnished WADA with information on the corruption in the system for four years before any action was taken. That action was a recommendation that he share what he knew with ARD reporter Hajo Seppelt.

Outgoing WADA director general David Howman said there were no realistic law enforcement or regulatory options, other than going to Russian authorities, which was obviously out of the question.

The thought of WADA sitting still while Russia literally ran wild is head-spinning, especially given the apparent scope of the con game in Sochi (and, by logical deduction, at the 2013 track world championships in Moscow and last year's swim worlds in Kazan). We'll never know how many ethical athletes have been defrauded with no hope of compensation. Or how many unfairly spend their careers dealing with the same suspicions as the cheaters because a flawed process obfuscates both genuine and enhanced accomplishments.

Any system that thoroughly beatable will beat up people on both ends.