Global Athlete
Global Athlete

Episode · 1 month ago

Re-release: The Olympic and Paralympic Sport Landscape with Rob Koehler


This is a re-release of our interview with Rob Koehler, originally published within GA Podcast EP02.

Without athletes, the Olympic and Paralympic Games would not be possible. Noah talks with Rob Koehler about why it’s imperative to understand athletes’ rights and why more accountability is needed in both the IOC and Court of Arbitration for Sport. 

In this episode, we talk about…

  • The emotional story of Navid Afkari
  • Athlete activism in Belarus
  • Relationship between IOC Athletes’ Commission and the IOC
  • Rule 50 and it’s current implications for Olympic/Paralympic athletes
  • Double standard of how athletes are treated vs. IOC members
  • IOC financial priorities and why Global Athlete is pushing to abolish Rule 40
  • Issues with Court of Arbitration for Sport
  • What happened to British hammer thrower Mark Dry
  • Impending problems of the Tokyo Games and what it means for athletes’ safety 

Memorable Quotes:

  • “Athletes that want to see better communities, want to stand up for social, racial justice—are being told that they can’t do it, and if they are going to do it—we’ll tell you when you can do it. And that is not freedom of expression. You cannot tell someone when they can’t speak up and when they can speak up.”
  • “If we’re going to look at the entire anti-doping system, we can’t look at things in silo, we need to look at it as a complete picture, and one of those pieces of the pie is the Court of Arbitration of Sport.” 

Guest Bio:

Rob Koehler is the Director General of Global Athlete and formerly the Deputy Director General of the World Anti-Doping Agency and a strong independent voice for athlete rights. 


Links to resources:


United for Navid Campaign 

IOC Athletes’ Commission  

Olympic Commercialization and Player Compensations: A Review of Olympic Financial Reports 

WADA: World Anti-Doping Agency 

Court of Arbitration for Sport  

Follow Rob on Twitter @RobKoehler2 and follow Global Athlete @GlobalAthleteHQ. Get in touch at and join the movement at

Rock Keeler is the Director General ofGlobal Athlete. He was formerly the deputy director general of the world,the Anti Doping Agency from two thousand and two until he resigned intwo thousand and nineteen. He has been a strong, independent voice for at beright and has been a part of the team behind this podcast rob welcome to theGlobal Athlete podcast. Thanks for having me now today. I wantto go over kind of all of the current events, the things that were focused ona global athlete, and I want to start with the story of navid carry who yeah has just a tragic story, that kindof embodies the relationship between athletes and sports administrators intoBay's environment. So can you tell us the story of Nevada carry absolutely and- and I will say that every time I speak of this issue andthe story of Neveda- I it's an emotional one, because it was anemotional time that we went through as athlete groups and as human rightsexperts, and we first came to the attention of it through Sally Roberts,who runs wrestle like a girl and the sport and right alliance, where theyinformed us that Iranian wrestler Navadad was peacefully protesting inSeptember, two thousand and eighteen in Iran against the Iranian regime, andshortly after that protest. The Iranian regime accused Navid of murdering asecurity guard, but the actual facts around whathappened to Havid, which have been proven by human rights experts with anI ran that navid in fact never murdered. The security guard. NAVID was beaten and tortured by theIranian regime into a confession, as well as his brothers Vahid and Habibwho are currently in jail, and what happened was. Is the Iranian regimeplaced navied on death row and was basically being used an example to therest of society with any red to not stand up for human rights and not toprotest, and one has to understand that wrestling and Iran has the samepopularity as baseball of football in the US US or soccer in in Europe, and we found out that NAVID was to beexecuted on the sixth of the ninth of September, and what we had done is isreally leveraged and worked with athletes the week leading to to try toget a stay of execution for Nevi. And what that's happened in the past andwhat's currently happening in Iran? Is the Iranian authorities areincreasingly using the death sentences to terrorize the population intoremaining silent and to end any other further participation in peacefulprotests?...

So we made a statement collectivelywith with athlete groups from around the world, with human rights expert onthe eighth of September, to demand that there is this stay of execution, which was successful. NAVID was not executed on the ninth of September and we felt we needed to do morefollowing that and as a result, we made another statement with other athletegroups demanding that the international of the committee and the WorldWrestling Federation publicly indicate that formal sanctionswould be enforced against the Iranian National IMPI committee should navid beexecuted. Now, at that time, the I was he indicated they were working behindthe scenes which we believed it wasn't a time forsoft politics and the IOC needed to be stronger and publicly state that shouldanything happen to NAVID. There would be dire consequences. Two days later, NAVID was executed. In fact, NAVID wasnot executed. After we found out later, navid was in fact tortured and beaten to death themorning of the twelfth of September. So all of the work that we had done as a global ethicgroup as a go Blasi community as human rights experts failed, and we also believed that the IOC afterthey made a statement in October. I think it was October seventh followingexecutive committee, that their actions did not result and did not help savenavid. A cut of cary's life and we felt that the IOC had neglected its duty ofcare for athletes by failing to take action against Iran and to this date the IOC has not done anything tosanction, ran based on the death and execution of the Iran card, and I thinkit's really important to understand that this is not an isolated insict.This incidence there's incidents of athlete abuse going on regularly inYrap and as a result of what happened to Navid,a group was established called the United for navid campaign campaign andsince that time they have brought forward cases to the IOC that haveshown that athletes continue to be tortured because of not following whatthe Islamic Republic of Iran require them to do. For example, not takingpart in religious events promoting the Islamic republic required to throwmatches against Israelis, women have been discriminates for refusing toconform to dress codes. They have been...

...subject to lashes for taking pictureswith male counterparts, so the athlete abuse that's happening around continuesand proof has been provided to the IOC by the United for navied campaign, andyet nothing has been done. There's been no action to against the the NationalIMPI committee and it continues to remain a major concern that the duty ofCarabas has not been protected by the International. In the committee now Iwill say that the united world wrestling has suspended the Iranian WrestlingFederation for the actions that are requiring athes to throw events againstIsraeli, so they have stepped up and suspended the rest in federation, butthe IOC remains complicit and continues to observe, but take no action againstIran with the countless and amount of abuses happening in the country, andit's simply unacceptable. So rob similar to the situation of athleteactivism that we've seen in Iran we've seen some mated activist in Belarus.Can you explain what's happening there? What's happened in Belleros is the withthe frauding election of Alexander. I Senko, who at the time, was also thepresident of the national epic committee in Bellerus. The Belarusianathletes decided it was time to publicly protest with the rest of thecommunity and the citizens of Belarus that election and the athletes stoodtogether and end up forming an organization called the Belarus Sport,Solidarity Fund and or the Foundation, and with that, when doing so, theydemanded a few things on. They demanded that the president of the country whowas, I said, was also the President Bashneft Committee that he be removedfrom his position and the national pen community be partially suspended. The IOC actually after much convincing, had demanded that newelections take place and partially suspended the National Ope Committee,but that didn't go out with any retribution. If you look what'shappened since that time, the Belarusian, when w NBA basketballplayer Elena Mashenka, she was jailed for fifteen days for public protestingand abysmal conditions in the jail and Minsk. She had been removed andreleased from prison, but it didn't end there, because the athletes didn't stoptheir athlete activism. They went on to to demand that the International IceHockey Federation remove the World Championships from Minsk. They weresuccessful because sponsors got behind it such a Coda. They managed to removethe European cycling championships because they felt hosting events in thecountry was only...

...supporting a resume, a regime thatwasn't in their opinion and the European courts opinion a validelection. Now, since that time, we have sadly seen criminal charges, bogus criminalcharges being placed against the chairwoman and the Executive Directorof the Belarus Sport Solidarity Foundation for basically inciting lies that therewas a a F frauding election, so they have charges against them. They've hadtheir houses searched and members of the other members of the associationsearched as well. The concern we have is the I C hasn't reacted to these newactions taken by the Belarusian authorities against athletes and withthe Tokyo, Two thousand and twenty eliptic and paralytic games coming verysoonwe. Think that there's needs to be further action against the national. Ibe committee and a full suspension to protect the athletes and to reallydisplay that this type of behavior against athletes for standing up for their rights should haveconsequences. So we've kind of established here that the IRC has beenunwilling to kind of stand up for athletes when it means getting involvedin political situations. So that brings us straight to athletes being able tostand up for themselves and rule fifty of the Olympic Charter. Before weactually talk about role fifty, I think we need to briefly discuss the IOCathletes. Commission we're going to do a full episode on this next week, butcan you because the athletes commission just finished, doing this report onrule fifty? Can you briefly explain kind of the relationship between theIOC athletes, Commission and the IOC sure I will do a disclaimer right off. TheBat is what I'm going to say is not against the athletes themselves,because I believe the majority of athletes that are put in positions arethere for a good good intent. What I do is a blame is the international IPECCommittee for putting athletes and positions, what forces them to to makedecisions and come to conclusions that are not athletes centered. Now let meexplain what currently, when you are elected or appointed to the IOSACommission, you are required to sign and agree to the Olympic oath and whatthe Olympic Goth States is. That, in summary, is you as an athletecommission member must support all decisions of the Olympic Movement andthe IO sea. So here you have athletes that arebrought into represent athletes, but yet are sworn to a producer duty to theIOC to support their decisions,... the athletes are put in a verydifficult position because of athletes and gold. LAFFAT worldwide wantssomething different than the IOC. When push comes to shove, the I S C and theAthlete Commission is forced and required to support the IC decision, soyou don't have independent representation that should be in place.You have athletes put in positions that are required to follow, follow lead ofthe IOC and that's an inherent flaw of the system, and it's something that I feel reallyreally uncomfortable for every athe that is forced into those positions,and I feel for them, because I know we've spoken to some that are notcomfortable with positions they've been putting at time. So with that isbackground, and thank you for that. Can you talk about rule fifty, the OlympicCharter, its implications for athletes and the recent IOC athlete CommissionConsultation on Bel, Fifty and kind of where we are currently yeah? I mean rule. Fifty is a rule thathas been around for years within the IOC and within theParalleopipedon, where it restricts freedom of expression of athletes andwhen I say it restricts freedom of expression is athletes are not able to peacefully protest under the guidelinesof the UN Declaration of Human Rights on the field of play or the podium prior to this recent consultation. Infact, they weren't allowed to protest anywhere in terms of. If should theywant to stand up for social racial justice to their want? To stand up foranything, they believe in that is respectful and, as I said, in line withthe, U and the UN Declaration, so the IOC basically has taken a stance wherethey want to limit freedom of expression and they want to ensureathletes. You know the old saying is shut up and dribble, where you focus on your sport and youshouldn't focus on other issues that are affecting society, which is aconcern, because the is C is an organization that talks about sportbeing a big change, big changer for for societies, for making society a betterplace and to contribute to a better community. But yet, on the other hand, athletesthat want to see better communities want to stand up forsocial. Racial Justice are being told that they can't do it and if they aregoing to do it will tell you when you can do it, and that is not freedom ofexpression. You cannot tell someone when they can speak up and when theycan speak up and that rules in place today, where they have limited theability for athletes to speak up and cannot publicly protest in terms of thepodium or the field of play well and more than just making o you know,making good society or like being good...

...citizens pushing for better societies.You have a mean we just talked about. You have athletes in Belarus and iniron, who are being targeted politically targeted, and I meanexecuted in the case of Naveda, specifically because they are athletes,and yet those same athletes cannot raise awareness of the issues thatthey're passionate about in their countries. They cannot speak out aboutwhat is happening to them personally at the Olympic Games when they have thisplatform. You know this is this is something thatwe've worked extensively on a global athlete. I clearly feel passionatelyabout no there's a double standard here too, so, let's be very clear, but ifthere's a double standard on how athletes are treated and how members ofthe International, if be committee, are treated. So if an athlete stands up andspeaks up and and they're treated very differently, then when, when an io semember is found to have corruption charges or be ticket sales scandals,for some reason, the IOC seems to stand behind them and support them case inpoint would be Patrick Hickey in Rio, who was brought back and helped by theIOC. But yet athletes who want to stand up for something right seem to be heldto a different standard and we will be doing a full episode on on l fifty andon kind of at the Athlete Protest Movement. We should move on cold. Wetron to do what over few here and I could certainly get caught in the weeds.But let's let talk about the financialdistribution within the Olympic system. So, a little more than a year ago,Global Athlete in partnership with virus on University and the Ted RogerSchool of Management, released a review of Olympic financial reports. Can youtell us what the main findings were and the takeaway from that study yeah? Wewere very pleased and thankful for the work that we did with the Ted RogerSchool of Management and Ryerson University. I mean the amount ofresearch they put into this project was was incredible and I guess the main,the main outcomes. Where is that you know athletes and collective bardingand the ethic leverage doesn't exist and the whole idea that athit should becompensated for preparing and attending the L it games where currently, themajority of athletes and their families financially subsidize years of trainingtravel equipment to compete for a multi billion dollar industry at the OlympicGames, and it's simply unacceptable that athletes are taking money to theirown pockets and not being compensated to to an industry that is bringingbillions of dollars. And it's clearly stated in the study that the unbalanceddistributional funds to the Elym to the athletes where theOlympic Games wouldn't exist without those athletes putting in people in theseats without without broadcasters, pain for the event and currently of theone point four billion dollars the IOC brings in annually. Only four point.One percent of that funding directly...

...from the Olympic Movement goes throughscholarships, grants and awards for sex, successful, successful competitions toathletes and of that only five point. Five percent goesdirectly to athletes. So the four point one percent is distributed throughinternational federations, national lithe committees, down to filter toathletes and the IOC is point five percent of that one point: four billion and the ISH talks about the Olympicsolidarity model that they want to distribute funds, but yet they don'treally address where all those funds are going and the concern in theirstudy was where is the prioritization of that funding? So the IOC is givingmoney to international federations to continent Olympic Committees tonational IPI committees paying for an Olympic channel paying for a limp. TheOlympic Museum Olympic Studies, but yet all that money is being distributed toall these different organizations and the athletes continue to be the onesleft out, and then we put on top of that. The IOChas another rule in rule forty, which limits and restricts athletes fromprofiting from their own association with their own sponsorships during theOlympic Games. So during the Olympic Games, if an athlete is sponsored by acertain company, they are not allowed to display that on their uniforms ontheir when they're competing and that's why we're pushing that rule forty beabolished to allow athletes to display sponsors that have supported them alltheir career, but ye when they go to the pinnacle event, they can no longer use that sponsorship and promote thatsponsorship other than a couple tweets now that they can do, and if youcompare that to other professional successful leagues. If you look attennis, if you look at Golf, those players are displayingsponsorshipsduring their events. Ongoing sponsorship and those events stillsucceed. We've been talking about water, but another part of the Global Antidoping system is cast or the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which has alsobeen criticized by the antidote community for for not being a neutralbody and for for being inaccessible to athletes. Can you talk about some ofthe issues that you've seen with CASS? I think with CASS NOAH is there's t e ehas been definitely a no cry from athletes and from National Anti DopeOrganization. About its independence and whether it's real or perceivedconflicts of interest they're there one example is the president of cast is also the vicepresident of the international ibicos and to have that dual position, where it'ssupposed to be an independent arbitration system is simply wrong andand needs to be corrected. The Carter Abitation for sport is funded entirelyby the international big committee.

They have a secretive message orprocess when the appoint members there very few times do they have open andtransparent herrings and the decisions, when rendered sometimes can take up toeighteen months turtel to eighteen months, which is simply unacceptablefor athletes. And then how are the members selected? What are their termlimits and given there are no term limits, they could be removed at anytime and from an athletes perspective. The the accessibility of casts and thethe fact that there isn't open hearings for everything simply needs to bechanged and have a review and the further concerned athlete is from Athis.Are the access to legal ate offered by cast where that's found to berestrictive and athletes are always seemed to be in a powerless positionwhen going to cast because of the cost restrictions, the lack of league aidand always having the feeling that the organizations with the most money tendto have more of a chance and winning the caseof cast? So it does need review. I don't know whyLata and other organizations have enforced the review, but I think it'stime now. If we're going to look at the entire antidoting system, we can't lookat things in Sila. We look need to look at as a as a complete picture and thenone of those pieces of the pie is the quarter of abitation the spot. I wantto talk about the individual athlete system a little bit. Can you tell usthe story of British Hammer thrower mark dry I'd be pleased to so mark dry. I was A or is, or still is, an athlete in theUK and what happened with him was mark. Dry was in the domesticregistered testing pool in the UK, and the rules curly state that he has toprovide whereabouts information, but whereabouts information provided doesnot result in the same consequences if you're, an international level athleteand an international pool. Let me give you the quick example in the UK, if you're in a domestictesting pool- and someone comes to your house and you're- not there during atime slot that you've allocated you're, simply there's no consequence toward you. Ifyou get three of those in a domestic pool, you could potentially brought itinto the registered testing pool with a registered testing pool. If youare, if an anti doping person comes to your place, where you say you're goingto be for that one hour, slot you're marked with a strike a three strike penally, whether it's afailure to be your residence or failure to VI whereabouts, a three strike: itresults, an antidoting, real violation...

...or a potential antidote violation. MarkDry, wasn't under those rules mark, I didn't wasn't required to wouldn't have any sanctions against himfor not complying or not providing whereabouts. They would have to movemen to an international register, testing pool what happened with markdry is the test is showed up in his house. He wasn't there. They followed up withhim and said you weren't there. Where were you mark, told the people at Yucatan theinvestigators that he went fishing which found out later that he didn't gofishing, but he panicked because he wasn't at where he was supposed to bethat consequence to what he said, that he went fit when fishing and wasn'tfishing has a irrelevant. The fact is, he wasn't there, no matter where he was,but yet you had felt they wanted to pursue an anti doping rule violationagainst mark for lying. So they went with a heavy handed approach for himtelling which had no effect on the rules. If he wasn't there, there was noconsequences. Other than saying you may one day be moved into a registeredtesting coal, but instead you had brought him forward to have an antidopin rule of violation to say he lied in terms of he went fishing as I said,which really doesn't matter and they pursued an anti doping ruleviolation against them. What happened was he was given a twoyear sanction by you, Cat Mark Dry, fought thatsanction and on the appeal as a result. Instead of U Ka sittingback and say, okay, he won the appeal. Mark Dry was brought forward to gainand you cad appealed that decision made by an independent appeals decision and,as a result mark was given a four year ban for basically nothing and to us. It was a total injustice ofthe system that Mark Dry was brought through the system which, I might addwhen the final decision of four years was put forward, had no right of appeal. He had to rely on either WADA or theworld athletics to Peal, the decision of which neither of them had done and-and he had no right to appeal. That decision, which again is another hit atAthit, writes and the right to justice so mark dray is an example of a failedsystem that is ruined his career for basically, a heavy handed approachedfrom an anti doping authority, which was undeserved, and it's a case wherethe system has failed a clean athlete and has used their powers to make anexample of everyone else behind. If it was, if mark dry was multi billiondollar, a multi million dollar athlete, I'm not sure, you'd have the sameresult against it. Let's move now to...

Tokyo, two thousand and twenty last week with Professor Boycot, wetalked about the ways that the these games are going ahead kind of withoutthe consent of the people in Tokyo who are hosting them. But I want to. I wantto look talk with you more about it from an athlete perspective, so the IOChas produced the what's called the Tokyo play books that outline the Ovidprotocols of the Games and many experts, including the New England Journal ofMedicine, have called the playbooks inadequate. Additionally, as acondition of participation at the Games, athletes must sign a waver that acceptthe risk of quote serious injury, serious bodily injury or even deathraised by the potential exposure to health hazards, such as thetransmission of ovid nineteen. Can you talk about kind of these? The concernsof the experts have, you know, first of all, but secondly, kind of you know the shifting of the burdenfrom the IOC two athletes and what you know, the position that athletes arebeing put in and the lack of kind of ability to have any input in the systemgoing into Tokyo Yeah. I think you have to put thingstogether and not put them in silo, because you know a lot of majorsporting events require athletes to accept, except some risk when going tothe Games. But there is a distinct difference and I'll tell you what thatdifference is. First of all, no, I think almost every Olympic Ath theywant to of the Games, but not at any cost, and that's where we look at theathletes are essential workers for the Games, they're unpaid workers, because without the Games without theathletes, the games don't exist and that's why there we have talked aboutin the past the demand for more robust protocols, and you cannot accept anathlete to accept all risk when the crisis management system or the playbooks they have in place are not as robust as they should be. The IOC. You know it's mind, boggling alittle bit, and I think that they've gotten themselves in this problembecause of the way they approached it. If you have a crisis management plan,you start off with the most the fully robust plan possible and you scale itback as the risks minimize. For some reason, the IOC has gone the otherdirection, so they started off with a a small coved protocols and their playbook and then based on risks. They started to build on it, which is alittle bit backwards and what that happens is where we are today. It ends up losing the confidence of athletes. Itdoesn't build public confidence or public health confidence and, to somedegree it lacks transparency and accountability, but yet they've. Thisis the approach they've taken. So if you're going to ask athletes to sign a waver in terms of, shouldthey be infected with Covin nineteen, thenyou go. You have to put in the most...

...robust program possible and I'll. Tellyou where we feel that they've missed the mark on it. So one the wavers are unacceptable andneed to be clarified, on whose response for what and who's going to takeresponsibility should the Tokyo, O thousand and twenty or the governmentor the IOCO fulfilled their obligations on protecting the athletes. The insurance during the Games is there,but where is the insurance for athletes if there's loss of wages, if there'smedical and mental health care needed either pre or post games? That'slacking the fact that national lympiccommittees are required to provide face, masks and who knows the differentquality and quantities that will be brought is ridiculous. The is C shouldbe providing that just last this week the IOC announced the the amount ofcondoms that are coming into the village, but because of sociallydistance protocols that their encourage athletes to bring back their condomsback home. Why would they provide medical masks and whatever is left over,allow them to bring them back home where there's a need for protectionagainst Covin Nineteen, and I'm not saying the condoms are not a bad idea.I'm just saying there's a seems to be a real mix of priorities with when it comes towhat the ice is doing for Ovid nineteen accommodations. We have concerns withif it should be, provided single room, accommodations and should not be bunkedtogether with private bathrooms. We want to the most recent playbook actually talked aboutisolation facilities, which I think based on what they've shown and whatthey've seen has improved, where there be business style, hotels for athletes. The whole idea of and they've mentionedthis again, the heavy handed approach should an athlete breach the Covetnineteen protocols. So, instead of working on a remedy approach, theycontinue to talk about a punitive one that should they breach it. Should theymake a mistake that they potentially could be kicked out of the Olympics?That is not a way to have an athlete centered approach to any type ofpandemic, where the rules are not clear and then everyone's not sure whatanyone's doing the protocol and safety on collectionof the when doing the test for Ovid nineteen. So what is there an antidoping style security for that testing procedures to avoid any real orperceived test manipulation? Has that been considered put in place? Theycontinue to talk about using a mobile APP for contact tracing, that'sinefficient. We clearly state that whereabout devicesare the best standard. That Ali should be reinwardt devices were track andthey wear them all the time and then the other concern is...

...they continue to compare about. TheProfessional Leagues have successfully carried out events and they have, butthe main difference was professional. Leagues have had theability to have flexible competition schedules and they've had ability to delay thingsand to put things on hold. The IOC has not extended the durationof the games or the IPC for that matter, and our fear is that broadcasts broadcast rights will put pressure onthe IOC to run events as schedule and that would affect athletes andpotentially forced them to either MIS events or compete. If, if that possibilitydoesn't exist now I will admit I was pleasantly surprised that the ILC willaward metals. If someone is competing for gold and should they be contract,Covet nineteen and be put in isolation, they will be awarded a silver medal. Ithink that's a positive approach. I think that is a wise decision, butthere has to be more flexibility in terms of what the Games are going tolook like the potential ability to delay start times in order to ensurethat athletes have every afforded every opportunity of flexibility to compete,her bat, we will leave it there rob Keeler. Is the director general aglobal athlete? He was formerly the deputy director general of the world.The Anti Doping Agency he's been a strong, independent boy voice for outthe right, and this part of the team behind this podcast rob. Thank you foryour time and all of your insights. That's it for this episode of theGlobal Athlete podcast. If you enjoyed this episode, please leave us a ratingand review on Apple podcast or wherever. You listen. Also tell your friendsabout us or posted by some social media. We want more people to join theconversation about power, accountability and Athlete Rights andInternational Sport. Our team includes Grisha, Rob Keeler and Julia Barton,I'm no a hotman. I.

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