Global Athlete
Global Athlete

Episode · 8 months 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

Rob Keiler is the director general of Global Athlete. He was formerly the deputy director general of the world the Anti Doping Agency from two thousand and two until he resigned in two thousand and nineteen. He has been a strong, independent voice for at the rights and it's been a part of the team behind this podcast. Rob, welcome to the Global Athlete podcast. Thanks for having me though today I want to go over kind of all of the current events, the things that were focused on a global athlete and I want to start with the story of Navid F Kari, who, yeah, has just a tragic story that kind of embodies the relationship between athletes and sports administrators in today's environment. So can you tell us the story of Nevit F Kari? Absolutely, and I will say that every time I speak of this issue and the story of NEVITV Kari, it's an emotional one, because it was an emotional time that we went through as as athlete groups and as human rights experts, 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 they informed us that Iranian wrestler Navidev Kari, was peacefully protesting in September two thousand and eighteen in Iran against the Iranian regime and shortly after that protest, the arrange Anian regime accused navid of murdering a security guard. But the actual facts around what happened and Nevid, which have been proven by human rights experts within Iran, that navid in fact never murdered the security guard. Nevid was beaten and tortured by the Iranian regime into a confession, as well as his brothers, Vahid and Habib, who are currently in jail. And what happened was is the Iranian regime placed navid on death row and was basically being used an example to the rest of society with an Iran to not stand up for human rights and not to protest. And one has to understand that wrestling in Iran has the same popularity as baseball football in the US US or soccer in Europe. And we found out that NAVID was to be executed on the sixth, on the ninth of September, and what we had done is is really leveraged and worked with athletes the week leading to to try to get a stay of execution for navid and what that's happened in the past and what's currently happening in Iran is the Iranian authorities are increasingly using the death sentences to terrize the population into remaining silent and to end any other further particitionsipatent in peaceful protests. So we made...

...a statement collectively with with athlete groups from around the world, with human rights expert on the eighth of September to demand that there's this stay of execution, which was successful. NAVID was not executed on the ninth of September and we felt we needed to do more following that and as a result, we made another statement with other athletic groups demanding that the International Olympic Committee and the World Wrestling Federation publicly indicate that formal sanctions would be enforced against the Iranian nation Olympic Committee should navid be executed now. At that time, the I WASC indicated they were working behind the scenes, which we believed it wasn't a time for soft politics and the IOC needed to be stronger and publicly state that should anything happen to navied, there would be dire consequences two days later navid was executed and in fact nevid was not executed after we found out later nevid was in fact tortured and beaten to death the morning of the twelve of September. So all of the work that we had done as a global athletic group, as a global Athet community, as human rights experts failed and we also believed that the IOC, after they made a statement in October, I think it was October seventh, following executive committee, that their actions did not result and did not help save Nevid, a cup of car he's life, and we felt that the IOC had neglected its duty of care for athletes by failing to take action against Iran. And to this date the IOC has not done anything to sanction Iran based on the death and execution of the I ran of card and I think it's really important to understand that this is not an isolated insult. This incidents. There's incidence of athlete abuse going on regularly in Iran and as a result of what happened to Nevid, a group was established called the United for navide campaign campaign and since that time they have brought forward cases to the IOC that have shown that athletes continue to be tortured because of not following what the Islamic Republic of Iran require them to do, for example, not taking part in religious events promoting the Islamic republic, required to throw matches against Israeli's women have been discriminate against for refusing to conform to dress codes. They have...

...been subject to lashes for taking pictures with mail counterparts. So the athlete abuse that's happening around continues and proof has been provided to the IOC by the United for Navid campaign, and yet nothing has been done. There's been no action to against the the nation Olympic Committee and it continues to remaining major concern that the duty of care of athletes has not been protected by the International Olympic Committee. Now I will say that the united world wrestling has suspended the Iranian Wrestling Federation for the actions that are requiring athletes to throw events against Israeli so they have stepped up and suspended the Wrestling Federation, but the IOC remains complicit and continues to observe but take no action against Iran, with the countless and amount of abuse is happening in the country and it's simply unacceptable. So rob similar to the situation of athlete activism that we've seen in Iran, we've seen some athlete activism in Belarus. Can you explain what's happening there? What's happened in Belarus is the with the frauging election of Alexander Lusenko, who at the time was also the president of the National Olympic Committee in Belarus, the Belarusian athletes decided it was time to publicly protest with the rest of the community and the citizens of Belarus that election, and the athletes stood together and end up forming an organization called the Belarus Sport Solidarity Fund and or the foundation, and with that. When doing so, they demanded a few things. One they demanded that the president of the country, who was, I said, was also the President National Empic Committee, that he be removed from his position and the national empic committee be partially suspended. The IOC actually, after much convincing, had demanded that new elections take place and partially suspended the National Olympic Committee, but that didn't go out with any retribution. If you look what's happened since that time. The Belarusian when w NBA basketball player, you Lena Lushenka. She was jail for fifteen days for public protesting and abysmal conditions in the jail and Minsk. She had been removed and released from prison. But it didn't end there, because the athletes didn't stop their athlete activism. They went on to demand that the International Ice Hockey Federation remove the World Championships from Minsk. They were successful because sponsors got behind it, such as Skoda. They managed to remove the European cycling championships because they felt hosting events in the country was...

...only supporting a regime, regime that wasn't, in their opinion and the European courts opinion, a valid election. Now, since that time, we have sadly seen criminal charges, bogus criminal charges, being placed against the chairwoman and the Executive Director of the Belarus Sports Solidarity Foundation for basically inciting lies that there was a fall fraud election. So they have charges against them. They've had their houses searched and members of the other members of the association searched as well. The concern we have is the IOC hasn't reacted to these new actions taken by the Belarusian authorities against athletes and with the Tokyo two thousand and twenty Olympic and Paralympic Games coming very soon, we think that there's needs to be further action against the National Empic Committee, in a full suspension to protect the athletes into to really display that this type of behavior against athletes were standing up for their rights should have consequences. So we've kind of established here that the IOC has been unwilling to kind of stand up for athletes when it means getting involved in political situations. So that brings us straight to athletes being able to stand up for themselves and rule fifty of the Olympic Charter. Before we actually talk about rule fifty, I think we need to briefly discuss the IOC Athletes Commission. We're going to do a full episode on this next week, but can you, because the Athletes Commission just finished doing this report on rule fifty, can you briefly explain kind of the relationship between the IOC Athletes Commission and the IOC? Sure I will do a disclaimer right off the bat. 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 are there for good, good intent. What I do is blame is the International Olympic Committee for putting athletes and positions. What forces them to to make decisions and come to conclusions that are not athletes centered. Now let me explain what currently, when you are elected or appointed to the IOCE Athic Commission, you are required to sign and agree to the Olympic Oath and what the Olympic Oath States is that, in summary, is you, as an athlete commission member, must support all decisions of the Olympic Movement and the IOC. So here you have athletes that are brought in to represent athletes, but yet are sworn to a froduciary duty to the IOC to support their decisions. So the athletes are put in a very...

...difficult position because if athletes and global athletes worldwide wants something different than the IOC, when push comes to shove, the IOC and the Athlete Commission is forced and required to support the IOC decision. So you don't have independent representation that should be in place. You have athletes put in positions that are required to follow, follow a lead of the IOC, and that's an inherent flaw of the system and it's something that I feel really, really uncomfortable for every athlete that is forced into those positions and I feel for them because I know we've spoken to some that are not comfortable with positions they've been put in at time. So, with that is background and thank you for that. Can you talk about rule fifty of the Olympic Charter, it's implications for athletes and the recent IOC Athlete Commission Consultation on rule fifty and kind of where we are currently? Yeah, I mean rule fifty is a rule that has been around for years within the IOC and and within the Paralympic Committee as well, where it restricts freedom of expression of athletes, and when I say it restricts freedom of expression is athletes are not able to peacefully protest under the guidelines of the UN Declaration of Human Rights on the field of play or the podium. Prior to this recent consultation, in fact, they weren't allowed to protest anywhere in terms of if should they want to stand up for social racial justice through they want to stand up for anything they believe in that is respectful and, as they said, in line with the U and UN Declaration. So the IOC basically has taken a stance where they want to limit freedom of expression and they want to ensure athletes, you know, the old saying is shut up and dribble, where you focus on your sport and you shouldn't focus on other issues that are affecting society, which is a concern because the IOC is an organization that talks about sport being a big change, big changer for for societies, for making society a better place and to contribute to a better community. But yet, on the other hand, 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, will tell you when you can do it, and that is not freedom of expression. You cannot tell someone when they can speak up and when they can speak up, and that rules in place today where they have limited the ability for athletes to speak up and cannot publicly protest in terms of the podium or the field of play. Well, and more than just making you know, making good society or like...

...being good citizens, pushing for better societies. You haven't mean we just talked about. You have athletes in Belarus and in Iran who are being targeted, politically targeted, and I mean executed in the case of Nevete F cary, specifically because they are athletes. And yet those same athletes cannot raise awareness of the issues that they're passionate about in their countries. They cannot speak out about what is happening to them personally at the Olympic Games when they have this platform. You know, this is this is something that we've worked extensively on a global athlete, I clearly feel passionately about no, there's a double standards here too, so that's be very clear. But if there's a double standard on how athletes are treated and how members of the International Committee are treated, so if an athlete stands up and speaks up and and they're treated very differently than when a when an IOC member is found to have corruption charges or be tickets sales scandals, for some reason the IOC seems to stand behind them and support them. Case and point would be Patrick kicky in in Rio, who was brought back and helped by the IOC. But yet athletes who want to stand up for something right seem to be held to a different standard and we will be doing a full episode on on role fifty and on kind of at the Athlete Protest Movement. We should move on. We're trying to do it over a few here and I could certainly get caught in the weeds, but let's let's talk about the financial distribution within the Olympic system. So a little more than a year ago, Global Athlete, in partnership with virus and university and the Ted Rogers School of Management, the least a review of Olympic financial reports. Can you tell us what the main findings were and the takeaway from that study? Yeah, we were very pleased and thankful for the work that we did with the Ted Roger School of Management and Ryerson University. I mean, the amount of research they put into this project was was incredible and I guess the main the main outcomes were is that, you know, athletes and collective barting and the athletic leverage doesn't exist and the whole idea that athletes should be compensated for preparing and attending the Olympic Games. We're currently the majority of athletes and their families financially subsidize years of training, travel equipment to compete for a multi billion dollar industry, the Olympic Games, and it's simply unacceptable that athletes are taking money of their own pockets and not being compensated to to an industry that is bringing in billions of dollars. And it's clearly stayed in the study that the unbalanced distribution of funds to the Olympic, to the athletes, where the Olympic Games wouldn't exist without those athletes putting in people in the seats, without without broadcasters paying for the event. And currently, of the one point four billion dollars the IOC brings in annually, only four point one percent of that funding directly from the Olympic Movement goes through scholarships, grants and awards for... succexual successful competitions to athletes. And of that only five point five percent goes directly to athletes. So the four point one percent is distributed through international federations, national Olympic committees down to filter to athletes and the IOC is point five percent of that one point four billion. And the IOC talks about the Olympic solidarity model that they want to distribute funds, but yet they don't really address where all those funds are going and the concern in their study was where's the prioritization of that funding? So the IOC is giving money to international federations, to continental Olympic Committees, to nation Olympic Committees, paying for an Olympic channel, paying for Olympic the Olympic Museum, Olympic Studies, but yet all that money is being distributed to all these different organizations and the athletes continue to be the ones left out. And then we put on top of that the IOC has another rule in rule forty, which limits and restricts athletes from profiting from their own associal creation with their own sponsorships during the Olympic Games. So during the Olympic Games, if an athlete is sponsored by a certain company, they are not allowed to display that on their uniforms, on their when they're competing, and that's why we're pushing that rule forty be abolished to allow athletes to display sponsors that have supported them all their career. But young when they go to the pinnacle event, they can no longer use that sponsorship and promote that sponsorship other than a couple tweets. Now that they can do and if you compare that to other professional successful leagues. If you look at tennis, if you look at Golf, those players are displaying sponsorships during their events, ongoing sponsorship, and those events still succeed. We've been talking about water, but another part of the global antidoping system is is cast, or the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which is also been criticized by the antidoping community for for not being a neutral body and for for being inaccessible to athletes. Can you talk about some of the issues that you've seen with casts? I think with casts know is there's there has been definitely a no cry from athletes and from national antidope organization about its independence and whether it's real or perceived conflicts of interest. They're they're. One example is the president of casts is also the vice president of the international big committee, and to have that dual position where it's supposed to be an independent arbitration system is simply wrong and and needs to be corrected. The Court of Arbitration for Sport is funded entirely by the international...

...big committee. They have a secretive message or process when they appoint members. Their very few times do they have open and transparent hearings and the decisions when rendered, sometimes can take up to eighteen months or twelve eighteen months, which is simply unacceptable for athletes. And then how are the members selected? What are their term limits? And, given there are no term limits, they can be removed in any time. And from an athlete perspective, the the accessibility of casts and the the fact that there isn't open hearings for everything simply needs to be changed and have a review. And the further concerned athlete is from athletes are the access to legal aide offered by casts, where that's found to be restrictive and athletes are always seemed to be in a powerless position when going to cast because of the cost restrictions, the lack of legal aide and always having the feeling that the organizations with the most money tend to have a more of a chance and winning the case of casts. So it does need review to I don't know why water and other organizations haven't forced the review, but I think it's time now. If we're going to look at the entire anti doping system, we can't look at things in silo. We look need to look at as a as a complete picture and then one of those pieces of the Pie is is the Court of Arbitration of Sports. I want to talk about the individual athlete system a little bit. Can you tell us the story of British Hammer thrower mark dry? I'd be pleased to so. Mark Dry is was a, or is or still is an athlete in the UK and what happened with him was mark dry was in the domestic registered testing pool in the UK and the rules clearly state that he has to provide whereabouts information. But whereabouts information provide, it does not result in the same consequences if you're an international level athlete and an international pool. Let me give you the quick example. In the UK, if you're in a domestic testing pool and someone comes to your house and you're not there during a time slot that you've allocated, you're simply there's no consequence towards you. If you get three of those in a domestic pool, you could potentially brought into the registered testing pool with a registered testing pool. If you are, if an anti doping person comes to your place where you say you're going to be for that one hour slot, you're marked with a strike, a three strike penalty. Whether it's a failure to be at your residence or failure to provide whereabouts. A three strike. It results in an antidoping rule violation or potential antidoping real violation.

Mark Dry wasn't under those rules. Mark Dry didn't wasn't required to. Wouldn't have any sanctions against him for not complying or not providing whereabouts. They would have to move me into an international register testing pool. What happened with Mark Dry is the tester showed up in his house. He wasn't there. They followed up with him and said you weren't there. Where were you? Mark told the people that you cad in, the investigators that he went fishing, which found it later that he didn't go fishing, but he panicked because he wasn't that where he was supposed to be. That consequence to what he said, that he went fit when fishing and wasn't fishing, has irrelevant. The fact is he wasn't there, no matter where he was. But yet you had felt they wanted to pursue an antidoping rule violation against mark for lying. So they went with a heavy handed approach for him telling which had no effect on the rules. If he wasn't there, there was no consequences other than saying you may one day be moved into a register testing bull but instead you cad brought him forward to have an antidoping rule 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 rule violation against them. What happened was he was given a two year sanction by you. Cat Mark Dry thought that sanction and one the appeal. As a result, instead of you cad sitting back and say, okay, he won the appeal, Mark Dry was brought forward a gain and you had 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 of the system that Mark Dry was brought through the system which, I might add, when the final decision of four years was put forward, had no right of appeal. He had to rely on either WADA or the world athletics to appeal the decision, of which neither of them have done, and and he had no right to appeal that decision, which again as another hit at athlete rights and the right to justice. So mark dry as an example of US failed system that is ruined his career for basically a heavy handed approach from an Anti Doping Authority which was undeserved, and it's a case where the system has failed a clean athlete and has used their powers to make an example of everyone else behind. If a if mark dry was multibillion dollar, a multimillion dollar athlete, I'm not sure you'd have the same result against it. Let's move now to Tokyo two thousand...

...and twenty. Last week with Professor Boykof we talked about the ways that the these games are going ahead kind of without the consent of the people in Tokyo who are hosting them. But I want to I want to look talk with you more about it from an athlete perspective. So the IOC has produced the what's called the Tokyo playbooks that outline the covid protocols of the Games, and many experts, including the New England Journal of Medicine, have called the playbooks inadequate. Additionally, as a condition of participation at the Games, athletes must sign a waiver that accept the risk of, quote, serious injury, serious bodily injury or even death raised by the potential exposure to health hazards such as the transmission of covid nineteen. Can you talk about kind of these the concerns of the experts? Have you know, first of all, but secondly, kind of you know this shifting of the burden from the IOC to athletes and what you know the position that athletes are being put in and the lack of kind of ability to have any input in the system going into Tokyo? Yeah, I think you have to put things to together and not put them inside Oh, because you know, a lot of major sporting events require athletes to accept, accept some risk when going to the Games. But there's a distinct difference and I'll tell you what that difference is. First of all, Noah, I think almost every Olympic athlete wants to go the Games, but not at any cost, and that's where we look at. The athletes are essential workers for the Games. They're unpaid workers because without the Games, without the athletes, the games don't exist. And that's why there we have talked about in the past the demand for more robust protocols and you cannot accept an athlete 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 mindboggling a little bit and I think that they've gotten themselves in this problem because of the way they approached it. If you have a crisis management plan, you start off with the most fully robust plan possible and you scale it back as the risks minimize. For some reason the IOC is gone the other direction. So they started off with a small covid protocols and their playbook and then, based on risk, they started to build on it, which is a little bit backwards. And what that happens is where we are today. It ends up losing the confidence of athletes, it doesn't build public confidence or public health confidence and to some degree it lacks transparency and accountability. But yet they've this is the approach they've taken. So if you're going to ask athletes to sign a waiver in terms of should they be infected with covid nineteen, then you you have to put in the most robust program possible, and...

I'll tell you where we feel that they've missed the mark on it. So one the waivers are unacceptable and need to be clarified on whose response for what and who's going to take responsibility should the Tokyo two thousand and twenty or the government or the IOC not fulfilled their obligations on protecting the athletes? The insurance during the Games is there, but where is the insurance for athletes if there's lots of wages, if there's medical and mental healthcare needed either pre or post games? That's lacking. The fact that National Olympic committees are required to provide face masks, and who knows the different quality and quantities that will be brought is ridiculous. The IOC should be providing that. Just last this week, the IOC announced the amount of condoms that are coming into the village, but because of socially distance protocols, that they're encouraging you athletes to bring back the condoms back home. Well, why would they glide medical masks and whatever is left over? Allow them to bring them back home where there's a need for protection against covid nineteen. And I'm not saying that 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 to what the I was is doing for Covid nineteen. Accommodations, we have concerns with as it should be provided single room accommodations and should not be bunked together with private bathrooms. We want to the most recent playbook actually talked about isolation facilities which I think, based on what they've shown and what they've seen, as improved, where the be business style hotels for athletes. The whole idea of, and they've mentioned this again, the heavy handed approach should an athlete breach to covid nineteen protocols. So instead of working on a remedy approach, they continue to talk about a punitive one that should they breach it, should they make 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 of pandemic where the rules are not clear and then everyone's not sure what anyone's doing. The protocol and safety on collection of the when doing the test for Covid nineteen, so what is there an anti doping style security for that testing procedures to avoid any real or perceived test manipulation has that been considered put in place. They continue to talk about using a mobile APP for contact tracing. That's inefficient. We clearly state that were able devices are the best standard. That aff is should be wearing wearable devices were track and they wear them all the time. And then the other concern is they continue to compare about the professional leagues of successfully carried out events. And...

...they have, but the main difference was professional leagues have had the ability to have flexible competition schedules and they've had ability to delay things and to put things on hold. The IOC has not extended that the duration of the Games, or the IPC for that matter, and our fear is that broadcasts and broadcast rights will put pressure on the IOC to run events as schedule and that would affect athletes and potentially force them to either miss events or compete if if that possibility doesn't exist now. I will admit I was pleasantly surprised that the IOC will award metals. If someone is competing for gold and should they be contract covid nineteen and be put in isolation, they will be awarded a silver metal. I think that's a positive approach. I think that is a wise decision, but there has to be more flexibility in terms of what the Games are going to look like, the potential ability to delay start times in order to ensure that athletes have every afforded, every opportunity of flexibility to compete nervous. We will leave it there. Rob Keeler is the Director General Global Athlete. He was formerly the deputy director general of the world the Anti Doping Agency. He's been a strong, independent voice voice for Athlete Rights and as part of the team behind this podcast. Rob, thank you for your time and all of your insights. That's it for this episode of the Global Athlete podcast. If you enjoyed this episode, please leave us a rating and review on Apple podcast or wherever you listen. Also, tell your friends about us or post about us on social media. We want more people to join the conversation about power accountability and Athlete Rights and International Sport. Our team include Breeshaw, Rob Keeler and Julia Barton. I'm Noah Hoffman,.

In-Stream Audio Search


Search across all episodes within this podcast

Episodes (16)