Global Athlete
Global Athlete

Episode · 3 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 ofGlobal Athlete. He was formerly the deputy director general of the world the AntiDoping 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'sbeen a part of the team behind this podcast. Rob, welcome to theGlobal Athlete podcast. Thanks for having me though today I want to go overkind of all of the current events, the things that were focused on aglobal 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 relationshipbetween athletes and sports administrators in today's environment. So can you tell us the storyof Nevit F Kari? Absolutely, and I will say that every timeI speak of this issue and the story of NEVITV Kari, it's an emotionalone, because it was an emotional time that we went through as as athletegroups and as human rights experts, and we first came to the attention ofit through Sally Roberts, who runs wrestle like a girl, and the sportand right alliance, where they informed us that Iranian wrestler Navidev Kari, waspeacefully protesting in September two thousand and eighteen in Iran against the Iranian regime andshortly after that protest, the arrange Anian regime accused navid of murdering a securityguard. But the actual facts around what happened and Nevid, which have beenproven by human rights experts within Iran, that navid in fact never murdered thesecurity guard. Nevid was beaten and tortured by the Iranian regime into a confession, as well as his brothers, Vahid and Habib, who are currently injail. And what happened was is the Iranian regime placed navid on death rowand was basically being used an example to the rest of society with an Iranto not stand up for human rights and not to protest. And one hasto understand that wrestling in Iran has the same popularity as baseball football in theUS US or soccer in Europe. And we found out that NAVID was tobe executed on the sixth, on the ninth of September, and what wehad done is is really leveraged and worked with athletes the week leading to totry to get a stay of execution for navid and what that's happened in thepast and what's currently happening in Iran is the Iranian authorities are increasingly using thedeath sentences to terrize the population into remaining silent and to end any other furtherparticitionsipatent in peaceful protests. So we made...

...a statement collectively with with athlete groupsfrom around the world, with human rights expert on the eighth of September todemand that there's this stay of execution, which was successful. NAVID was notexecuted on the ninth of September and we felt we needed to do more followingthat and as a result, we made another statement with other athletic groups demandingthat the International Olympic Committee and the World Wrestling Federation publicly indicate that formal sanctionswould 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 tobe stronger and publicly state that should anything happen to navied, there would bedire consequences two days later navid was executed and in fact nevid was not executedafter we found out later nevid was in fact tortured and beaten to death themorning of the twelve of September. So all of the work that we haddone as a global athletic group, as a global Athet community, as humanrights experts failed and we also believed that the IOC, after they made astatement in October, I think it was October seventh, following executive committee,that their actions did not result and did not help save Nevid, a cupof car he's life, and we felt that the IOC had neglected its dutyof care for athletes by failing to take action against Iran. And to thisdate the IOC has not done anything to sanction Iran based on the death andexecution of the I ran of card and I think it's really important to understandthat this is not an isolated insult. This incidents. There's incidence of athleteabuse 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 thattime they have brought forward cases to the IOC that have shown that athletes continueto be tortured because of not following what the Islamic Republic of Iran require themto do, for example, not taking part in religious events promoting the Islamicrepublic, required to throw matches against Israeli's women have been discriminate against for refusingto conform to dress codes. They have...

...been subject to lashes for taking pictureswith mail counterparts. So the athlete abuse that's happening around continues and proof hasbeen provided to the IOC by the United for Navid campaign, and yet nothinghas been done. There's been no action to against the the nation Olympic Committeeand it continues to remaining major concern that the duty of care of athletes hasnot been protected by the International Olympic Committee. Now I will say that the unitedworld wrestling has suspended the Iranian Wrestling Federation for the actions that are requiringathletes to throw events against Israeli so they have stepped up and suspended the WrestlingFederation, but the IOC remains complicit and continues to observe but take no actionagainst Iran, with the countless and amount of abuse is happening in the countryand it's simply unacceptable. So rob similar to the situation of athlete activism thatwe've seen in Iran, we've seen some athlete activism in Belarus. Can youexplain what's happening there? What's happened in Belarus is the with the frauging electionof Alexander Lusenko, who at the time was also the president of the NationalOlympic Committee in Belarus, the Belarusian athletes decided it was time to publicly protestwith the rest of the community and the citizens of Belarus that election, andthe athletes stood together and end up forming an organization called the Belarus Sport SolidarityFund and or the foundation, and with that. When doing so, theydemanded a few things. One they demanded that the president of the country,who was, I said, was also the President National Empic Committee, thathe 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 placeand partially suspended the National Olympic Committee, but that didn't go out with anyretribution. If you look what's happened since that time. The Belarusian when wNBA basketball player, you Lena Lushenka. She was jail for fifteen days forpublic protesting and abysmal conditions in the jail and Minsk. She had been removedand released from prison. But it didn't end there, because the athletes didn'tstop their athlete activism. They went on to demand that the International Ice HockeyFederation remove the World Championships from Minsk. They were successful because sponsors got behindit, such as Skoda. They managed to remove the European cycling championships becausethey felt hosting events in the country was...

...only supporting a regime, regime thatwasn't, in their opinion and the European courts opinion, a valid election.Now, since that time, we have sadly seen criminal charges, bogus criminalcharges, being placed against the chairwoman and the Executive Director of the Belarus SportsSolidarity Foundation for basically inciting lies that there was a fall fraud election. Sothey have charges against them. They've had their houses searched and members of theother members of the association searched as well. The concern we have is the IOChasn't reacted to these new actions taken by the Belarusian authorities against athletes andwith 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 typeof behavior against athletes were standing up for their rights should have consequences. Sowe've kind of established here that the IOC has been unwilling to kind of standup for athletes when it means getting involved in political situations. So that bringsus straight to athletes being able to stand up for themselves and rule fifty ofthe Olympic Charter. Before we actually talk about rule fifty, I think weneed to briefly discuss the IOC Athletes Commission. We're going to do a full episodeon this next week, but can you, because the Athletes Commission justfinished doing this report on rule fifty, can you briefly explain kind of therelationship between the IOC Athletes Commission and the IOC? Sure I will do adisclaimer right off the bat. Is what I'm going to say. Is Notagainst the athletes themselves, because I believe the majority of athletes that are putin positions are there for good, good intent. What I do is blameis the International Olympic Committee for putting athletes and positions. What forces them toto make decisions and come to conclusions that are not athletes centered. Now letme explain what currently, when you are elected or appointed to the IOCE AthicCommission, you are required to sign and agree to the Olympic Oath and whatthe Olympic Oath States is that, in summary, is you, as anathlete 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, butyet 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 globalathletes worldwide wants something different than the IOC, when push comes to shove, theIOC 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 haveathletes put in positions that are required to follow, follow a lead of theIOC, and that's an inherent flaw of the system and it's something that Ifeel really, really uncomfortable for every athlete that is forced into those positions andI feel for them because I know we've spoken to some that are not comfortablewith positions they've been put in at time. So, with that is background andthank you for that. Can you talk about rule fifty of the OlympicCharter, it's implications for athletes and the recent IOC Athlete Commission Consultation on rulefifty and kind of where we are currently? Yeah, I mean rule fifty isa rule that has been around for years within the IOC and and withinthe 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 topeacefully protest under the guidelines of the UN Declaration of Human Rights on the fieldof 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 standup for social racial justice through they want to stand up for anything they believein that is respectful and, as they said, in line with the Uand UN Declaration. So the IOC basically has taken a stance where they wantto 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 andyou shouldn't focus on other issues that are affecting society, which is aconcern 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 tocontribute to a better community. But yet, on the other hand, athletes thatwant 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 todo it, will tell you when you can do it, and that isnot freedom of expression. You cannot tell someone when they can speak up andwhen they can speak up, and that rules in place today where they havelimited the ability for athletes to speak up and cannot publicly protest in terms ofthe podium or the field of play. Well, and more than just makingyou know, making good society or like...

...being good citizens, pushing for bettersocieties. You haven't mean we just talked about. You have athletes in Belarusand in Iran who are being targeted, politically targeted, and I mean executedin the case of Nevete F cary, specifically because they are athletes. Andyet those same athletes cannot raise awareness of the issues that they're passionate about intheir countries. They cannot speak out about what is happening to them personally atthe Olympic Games when they have this platform. You know, this is this issomething that we've worked extensively on a global athlete, I clearly feel passionatelyabout 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 membersof the International Committee are treated, so if an athlete stands up and speaksup and and they're treated very differently than when a when an IOC member isfound to have corruption charges or be tickets sales scandals, for some reason theIOC seems to stand behind them and support them. Case and point would bePatrick 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 beheld to a different standard and we will be doing a full episode on onrole fifty and on kind of at the Athlete Protest Movement. We should moveon. We're trying to do it over a few here and I could certainlyget caught in the weeds, but let's let's talk about the financial distribution withinthe 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 mainfindings were and the takeaway from that study? Yeah, we were verypleased and thankful for the work that we did with the Ted Roger School ofManagement and Ryerson University. I mean, the amount of research they put intothis project was was incredible and I guess the main the main outcomes were isthat, you know, athletes and collective barting and the athletic leverage doesn't existand the whole idea that athletes should be compensated for preparing and attending the OlympicGames. We're currently the majority of athletes and their families financially subsidize years oftraining, travel equipment to compete for a multi billion dollar industry, the OlympicGames, and it's simply unacceptable that athletes are taking money of their own pocketsand 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 tothe Olympic, to the athletes, where the Olympic Games wouldn't exist without thoseathletes 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 inannually, only four point one percent of that funding directly from the Olympic Movementgoes through scholarships, grants and awards for... succexual successful competitions to athletes.And of that only five point five percent goes directly to athletes. So thefour point one percent is distributed through international federations, national Olympic committees down tofilter to athletes and the IOC is point five percent of that one point fourbillion. And the IOC talks about the Olympic solidarity model that they want todistribute funds, but yet they don't really address where all those funds are goingand the concern in their study was where's the prioritization of that funding? Sothe IOC is giving money to international federations, to continental Olympic Committees, to nationOlympic Committees, paying for an Olympic channel, paying for Olympic the OlympicMuseum, Olympic Studies, but yet all that money is being distributed to allthese different organizations and the athletes continue to be the ones left out. Andthen 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 theirown sponsorships during the Olympic Games. So during the Olympic Games, if anathlete is sponsored by a certain company, they are not allowed to display thaton their uniforms, on their when they're competing, and that's why we're pushingthat rule forty be abolished to allow athletes to display sponsors that have supported themall their career. But young when they go to the pinnacle event, theycan 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 successfulleagues. If you look at tennis, if you look at Golf, thoseplayers are displaying sponsorships during their events, ongoing sponsorship, and those events stillsucceed. We've been talking about water, but another part of the global antidopingsystem is is cast, or the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which isalso been criticized by the antidoping community for for not being a neutral body andfor for being inaccessible to athletes. Can you talk about some of the issuesthat you've seen with casts? I think with casts know is there's there hasbeen definitely a no cry from athletes and from national antidope organization about its independenceand whether it's real or perceived conflicts of interest. They're they're. One exampleis 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 arbitrationsystem is simply wrong and and needs to be corrected. The Court of Arbitrationfor Sport is funded entirely by the international...

...big committee. They have a secretivemessage or process when they appoint members. Their very few times do they haveopen and transparent hearings and the decisions when rendered, sometimes can take up toeighteen months or twelve eighteen months, which is simply unacceptable for athletes. Andthen 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 factthat there isn't open hearings for everything simply needs to be changed and have areview. And the further concerned athlete is from athletes are the access to legalaide offered by casts, where that's found to be restrictive and athletes are alwaysseemed to be in a powerless position when going to cast because of the costrestrictions, the lack of legal aide and always having the feeling that the organizationswith the most money tend to have a more of a chance and winning thecase of casts. So it does need review to I don't know why waterand 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 lookat things in silo. We look need to look at as a as acomplete picture and then one of those pieces of the Pie is is the Courtof Arbitration of Sports. I want to talk about the individual athlete system alittle 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 isor still is an athlete in the UK and what happened with him was markdry was in the domestic registered testing pool in the UK and the rules clearlystate that he has to provide whereabouts information. But whereabouts information provide, it doesnot result in the same consequences if you're an international level athlete and aninternational 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'renot there during a time slot that you've allocated, you're simply there's no consequencetowards you. If you get three of those in a domestic pool, youcould potentially brought into the registered testing pool with a registered testing pool. Ifyou are, if an anti doping person comes to your place where you sayyou'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 residenceor failure to provide whereabouts. A three strike. It results in an antidopingrule 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 notcomplying or not providing whereabouts. They would have to move me into an internationalregister testing pool. What happened with Mark Dry is the tester showed up inhis house. He wasn't there. They followed up with him and said youweren'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'tgo fishing, but he panicked because he wasn't that where he was supposed tobe. That consequence to what he said, that he went fit when fishing andwasn't fishing, has irrelevant. The fact is he wasn't there, nomatter where he was. But yet you had felt they wanted to pursue anantidoping rule violation against mark for lying. So they went with a heavy handedapproach for him telling which had no effect on the rules. If he wasn'tthere, there was no consequences other than saying you may one day be movedinto a register testing bull but instead you cad brought him forward to have anantidoping 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 ruleviolation against them. What happened was he was given a two year sanctionby you. Cat Mark Dry thought that sanction and one the appeal. Asa result, instead of you cad sitting back and say, okay, hewon the appeal, Mark Dry was brought forward a gain and you had appealedthat decision made by an independent appeals decision and as a result, mark wasgiven a four year ban for basically nothing. And to us it was a totalinjustice 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 theworld 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 anotherhit at athlete rights and the right to justice. So mark dry as anexample of US failed system that is ruined his career for basically a heavy handedapproach from 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 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 ProfessorBoykof we talked about the ways that the these games are going ahead kind ofwithout the consent of the people in Tokyo who are hosting them. But Iwant to I want to look talk with you more about it from an athleteperspective. So the IOC has produced the what's called the Tokyo playbooks that outlinethe covid protocols of the Games, and many experts, including the New EnglandJournal of Medicine, have called the playbooks inadequate. Additionally, as a conditionof participation at the Games, athletes must sign a waiver that accept the riskof, quote, serious injury, serious bodily injury or even death raised bythe potential exposure to health hazards such as the transmission of covid nineteen. Canyou talk about kind of these the concerns of the experts? Have you know, first of all, but secondly, kind of you know this shifting ofthe burden from the IOC to athletes and what you know the position that athletesare being put in and the lack of kind of ability to have any inputin the system going into Tokyo? Yeah, I think you have to put thingsto together and not put them inside Oh, because you know, alot of major sporting events require athletes to accept, accept some risk when goingto the Games. But there's a distinct difference and I'll tell you what thatdifference is. First of all, Noah, I think almost every Olympic athlete wantsto go the Games, but not at any cost, and that's wherewe look at. The athletes are essential workers for the Games. They're unpaidworkers 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 morerobust protocols and you cannot accept an athlete to accept all risk when the crisismanagement system or the playbooks they have in place are not as robust as theyshould be. The IOC, you know, it's mindboggling a little bit and Ithink that they've gotten themselves in this problem because of the way they approachedit. If you have a crisis management plan, you start off with themost 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 offwith a small covid protocols and their playbook and then, based on risk,they started to build on it, which is a little bit backwards. Andwhat that happens is where we are today. It ends up losing the confidence ofathletes, it doesn't build public confidence or public health confidence and to somedegree it lacks transparency and accountability. But yet they've this is the approach they'vetaken. So if you're going to ask athletes to sign a waiver in termsof should they be infected with covid nineteen, then you you have to put inthe most robust program possible, and...

I'll tell you where we feel thatthey've missed the mark on it. So one the waivers are unacceptable and needto be clarified on whose response for what and who's going to take responsibility shouldthe Tokyo two thousand and twenty or the government or the IOC not fulfilled theirobligations on protecting the athletes? The insurance during the Games is there, butwhere is the insurance for athletes if there's lots of wages, if there's medicaland mental healthcare needed either pre or post games? That's lacking. The factthat National Olympic committees are required to provide face masks, and who knows thedifferent quality and quantities that will be brought is ridiculous. The IOC should beproviding that. Just last this week, the IOC announced the amount of condomsthat are coming into the village, but because of socially distance protocols, thatthey're encouraging you athletes to bring back the condoms back home. Well, whywould they glide medical masks and whatever is left over? Allow them to bringthem back home where there's a need for protection against covid nineteen. And I'mnot saying that the condoms are not a bad idea. I'm just saying there'sa seems to be a real mix of priorities with when it comes to whatthe I was is doing for Covid nineteen. Accommodations, we have concerns with asit should be provided single room accommodations and should not be bunked together withprivate bathrooms. We want to the most recent playbook actually talked about isolation facilitieswhich I think, based on what they've shown and what they've seen, asimproved, 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 breachto covid nineteen 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 what anyone's doing. The protocol and safety on collection of the when doing the test for Covidnineteen, so what is there an anti doping style security for that testing proceduresto 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'sinefficient. We clearly state that were able devices are the best standard. Thataff is should be wearing wearable devices were track and they wear them all thetime. And then the other concern is they continue to compare about the professionalleagues of successfully carried out events. And...

...they have, but the main differencewas professional leagues have had the ability to have flexible competition schedules and they've hadability to delay things and to put things on hold. The IOC has notextended 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 IOCto run events as schedule and that would affect athletes and potentially force them toeither miss events or compete if if that possibility doesn't exist now. I willadmit I was pleasantly surprised that the IOC will award metals. If someone iscompeting 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 flexibilityin terms of what the Games are going to look like, the potentialability 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. RobKeeler is the Director General Global Athlete. He was formerly the deputy director generalof the world the Anti Doping Agency. He's been a strong, independent voicevoice 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 forthis episode of the Global Athlete podcast. If you enjoyed this episode, pleaseleave 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. Wewant more people to join the conversation about power accountability and Athlete Rights and InternationalSport. Our team include Breeshaw, Rob Keeler and Julia Barton. I'm NoahHoffman,.

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