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4 August 2015

Failing the test: What the doping scandal teaches us about PR in elite sport

Written by: James Shapland, Assistant Account Executive at Edelman

Corporate Reputation, Crisis

Back in May, I wrote about the communicational failings of individuals and organisations in football, the world’s most popular game. Three months later and scandal has hit another international sporting body.

This weekend, The Sunday Times claimed to have gained access to the results of 12,000 blood tests from 5,000 athletes between 2001 and 2012. According to the newspaper, this evidence uncovers the “extraordinary extent of cheating” at the world’s biggest and most prestigious athletics events.

The files belong to the IAAF (International Association of Athletics Foundations), another world governing body now under the public spotlight.

Calling up to ten medals at the London Olympics into question, the allegations threaten to bring the entire sport into disrepute.

Of course, this is not the first incidence of doping in competitive sport. Lance Armstrong’s confession on The Oprah Winfrey Show sent shock waves through the cycling community and acted as a catalyst to uncovering a deeply rooted culture of drug taking.

The history of athletics is littered with drug cheats, from Ben Johnson to current 100m competitor Justin Gatlin.

This scandal flies in the face of athletics’ traditional values. The idea that the physically and mentally elite battle it out on the world stage, while maintaining principles of fair play and sportsmanship appears to be slowly eroding.

While it is no stranger to reform (the IOC experienced a complete overhaul after the 1998 bribery scandal), with the 2016 Olympic Games fast approaching, athletics will have its work cut out restoring trust.

From a reputational perspective, the IAAF, and more widely, the athletics and competitive sporting sector, will need to focus on communicating honestly and transparently in order to rebuild its public image. In an era of all-pervading news media and informed publics, it is no longer sufficient to simply claim that drug testing is applied and that the sport is fair. The process must be completely transparent, explained in both scientific and layman’s terms to restore confidence in the authorities.

From a more general perspective, it is important that world governing bodies are more in touch with supporters. At present, they appear as distant entities, ruling their respective sports from an ivory tower in Monaco or Zurich. By engaging more closely, these authorities can build trust and favour among stakeholder groups.

The upcoming election for IAAF president ought to be a pivotal moment, representing the best opportunity to restore confidence. Fifa missed their chance with the recent re-election of Sepp Blatter – let’s hope IAAF does better.

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