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WADA’s broken bureaucracy exposed as they reject MMA federation

The IMMAF’s attempt to become a WADA signatory highlights major flaws in the world anti-doping agency's policies and procedures. Iain Kidd explains.

SportAccord - Day 2 Photo by Mark Runnacles/Getty Images

WADA, or the world anti-doping agency, is an IOC (International Olympic Committee) run group which has a huge amount of influence over organized sports. The WADA prohibited list is the flawed list USADA uses for the UFC drug testing program, and the UFC anti-doping policy that bans athletes from proving a substance is misclassified is based on the WADA anti-doping code.

Despite this, being a WADA Code signatory--that is, a sporting organization verified by WADA as complying with its anti-doping rules--can be a useful political tool. Mixed martial arts isn’t sanctioned in several EU countries, and there are campaigns to outright ban it in a number of others, as well. In addition, WADA Code compliance is a requirement for any Olympic sport.

The International Mixed Martial Arts Federation is a group of national MMA federations which aims to get MMA recognized as a sport everywhere—it was the IMMAF who mounted a legal challenge against France’s attempt to ban MMA—and ultimately have MMA become an Olympic sport. To this end they recently attempted to gain WADA Code signatory status, and in the process, inadvertently exposed just how broken WADA’s bureaucracy is.

Back in 2014, the IMMAF made a public statement that they had set up an anti-doping committee, stating:

“The IMMAF anti-doping committee has the task of enabling WADA compliance before the end of May 2014, thus ensuring that MMA is on par with other major international sports. The first order of business for the committee is to investigate implementation for WADA compliance within the member federations and implications on matters such as sanctioning of professional events and compliance with the national guidelines in each individual country. After all relevant facts have been investigated and analyzed, the IMMAF anti-doping policies and procedures will be developed and then sent to WADA for approval.

Responsibilities of the Anti-Doping Committee:

• Development and maintenance of IMMAF anti-doping policies and procedures,

ensuring compliance with the WADA code.

• WADA and National anti-doping organization communication.”

That’s clear enough. The IMMAF set up a committee to ensure their policies were in line with WADA’s policies so they could apply to be WADA Code signatories. WADA, however, took exception to this innocuous statement and sent a threat of legal action over the statement:

We would like to remind you that IMMAF is not a signatory to the World Anti-Doping Code. Therefore, any reference to the compliance of IMMAF rules with the World Anti-Doping Code is misleading given that WADA is not - and cannot - monitor your anti-doping program.

For these reasons, we ask you once again to amend the content of your website.

Be further advised that if you do not comply with the demands set forth above, WADA will have no choice but to take legal action.”

WADA sent a legal threat to a group for saying they’re trying to ensure their guidelines meet the WADA Code standard. Let that sink in for a moment. Why would WADA be so hostile to a group trying to follow their rules? Well, we got a clue later when the IMMAF application was rejected.

WADA is an inherently political organization which is sometimes used as a weapon, or as a way for entrenched sports organizations to hold onto their own political power in the face of potential challenges. This was codified in 2010 when WADA’s executive committee adopted a policy that allows current members to deny an applicant Code signatory status to “avoid any potential or actual conflict between applicants and current signatories to the World Anti-Doping Code”

What this means in practice is WADA doesn’t decide if you’re a Code signatory based on whether or not you actually implement the WADA policies. It decides based on whether or not the other organizations like you. Remember, WADA is supposed to be an evidence-led organization which is trying to encourage the adoption of anti-doping rules.

This policy was quoted to the IMMAF when WADA rejected them from becoming code signatories. Notably, the rejection did not raise any issues with the IMMAF’s anti-doping policy or practices. The only reason given was that under the policy enacted in 2010, an existing WADA signatory made a decision “that WADA should not accept IMMAF as a new signatory to the Code.”

WADA sent Bloody Elbow the following statement regarding the rejection:

“WADA received a complete application from the IMMAF in 2016 to become a signatory to the World Anti-Doping Code (Code). As is standard process, and as mandated by WADA’s Executive Committee, WADA reviewed the application from the IMMAF, and subsequently consulted the appropriate international federations’ umbrella organizations. The umbrella organizations did not regard the IMMAF’s application as satisfactory, and therefore we were not in a position to advance talks further.”

The IMMAF’s statement on the application and rejection can be read here.

Anti-doping agencies and organizations need to do better. WADA typifies the issues with most anti-doping agencies; it’s slow to change; political considerations are given too much weight; scientific considerations are practically an afterthought; and the principles of justice we all accept as correct in the rest of our lives are replaced with rigid, authoritarian rules and regulations with little to no regard for fairness or proportionality. Something has to change.