Penny Heyns, the celebrated South African two-time Olympic gold medalist, remains a highly regarded authority in the world of athletics.
She was recently consulted by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) before the body took the decision to ban Russia from all major international sporting activities for four years.
Heyns argued vehemently against a strong lobby within WADA which pushed for a blanket ban of all Russian athletes from future competitions, starting with the Tokyo Olympics in Japan next year.
The move, according to reports, reminded SA’s 1996 Olympics golden girl of the deep sense of personal injustice when SA sportsmen and women were banned from participating in international sporting activities due to the apartheid practices by the government of the day.
A blanket ban is seen as requisite punishment by hawks within WADA but more sensible personalities like Heyns are concerned about the innocent individuals who are caught in the doping scandal shrouding RUSADA.
Heyns has served on the committee charged with overseeing the Russian doping investigation and has seen first-hand the rare internal dynamics which can only be characterised as “much more than meets the eye”.
Hence her vociferous opposition to the blanket ban of Russian athletes who will suffer as people at the top finally “deal” with the Russian authorities. I have previously argued that politics should never be allowed to rear their ugly head in the administration of sport. As Heyns observed, during her recent visit to Budapest where she watched innocent teenage Russian swimmers exhibit their talent and great promise.
“They were 10 or 11 when all of this was going down, they are not part of the system…They are totally innocent,” she was quoted as saying.
Her stance catapulted her to the position of being a voice for the innocent but powerless Russian athletes who have never been found guilty of doping but yet stand accused and condemned all because their nationality happens to be Russian.
WADA, partly in acknowledgment of a pushback by Heyns and others like her, resolved that Russian athletes could be allowed to participate at the Japan Olympics under the rubric “Authorised Neutral Athlete”. This would ensure that the Russian flag, anthem and uniform won’t be allowed to be displayed and whatever victory the so-called “neutral” athletes win would not be credited to their country.
According to Heyns, “Looking at the way things have gone thus far, the manipulation and everything, I think what’s more important is the words ‘Russia is gone’. She added that she found it unfair to single out Russian athletes for special attention, and this sentiment did not imply there had been no wrong-doing on the part of Russian athletics authorities.
WADA, a Canada-based foundation that was established by the International Olympic Committee, should concentrate its energy with utmost integrity on its founding key objectives – promote, coordinate and monitor the fight against drugs in sport.
The punishment meted out to those found guilty can indeed be exemplary, and I have no problem with that, but it ought to be geared towards rehabilitation than hell-bent on destruction.
It is my considered view that the manner in which WADA has dealt with RUSADA has been tantamount to throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
When all is said and done, WADA and athletics bosses need to show sympathy and solidarity with the innocent, whose dreams can be destroyed as part of a wrong-doing they absolutely have nothing to do with.
I agree with RUSADA’s decision to appeal the heavy ban. Hopefully, the Court of Arbitration for Sport will differentiate between the guilty officials and the athletes that Heyns describes as “totally innocent”.
“It’s our duty to ensure all clean athletes have the right to compete, including those from Russia who can honestly prove their innocence,” she said.