On Thursday, it was confirmed that the Tokyo Olympics would take place behind closed doors. The Games will go ahead, despite reservations from many people in Tokyo. They will take place in a country where most people are not vaccinated and it will, in many ways, be a faint and anaemic version of the Olympics.

We have seen in the European Championships the transformative effect of crowds and the Olympics will seem vast and soulless without them. For the competitors, a lifetime’s goal will now be nothing like they imagined.

James Fitzgerald will be one of those at the Olympics. As a communications executive at WADA, he will be experiencing his first Olympics. He has nothing to judge it against but he knows it will be different.

Fitzgerald has worked for WADA since 2018 and in this weekend’s podcast, he defends the body from accusations that the body is no longer fit for purpose. There have been growing calls for reform of WADA, especially after the Court of Arbitration reduced the suspension of Russia to two years last December, something which was the breaking point for many athletes.

Fitzgerald’s own career began in journalism. He covered cricket for The Irish Times before going to work for the International Cricket Council (ICC) in Dubai.

Within a year, he was covering the Cricket World Cup in the West Indies. As an Irish cricket supporter, he was hoping to enjoy the tournament and when Ireland beat Pakistan on St Patrick’s Day in Jamaica, it seemed to be even more incredible than he could imagine.

And then, a day later, came the news of Bob Woolmer’s death. The sudden death of Pakistan’s coach shocked the cricket world but worse was to come.

“I was used to getting calls from the Times of London or The Sydney Morning Herald or the Jamaica Gleaner or any of those sort of well established cricket newspapers, through the course of my job. But suddenly, I’m getting calls from the crime correspondent of the New York Times and journalists from all over the world in every country were following this story.”

The reason was the line of inquiry the Jamaican police pursued.

James Fitzgerald is a former Irish journalist who is now a senior manager With Wada

“Initially they, incorrectly as it turned out, considered his death to be a murder. It took a few days for them to come to that conclusion. But when that happened, you know, all hell broke loose for me. And, you know, I was at the forefront of dealing with media inquiries, but when you consider what his family went through at that time, what the Pakistan players were dealing with, because not only had they been kicked out of the World Cup by Ireland, of all teams, but their coach died the next day,” he says.

This was before social media but it didn’t prevent a frenzy.

“It was a crazy time and I certainly learned a lot about myself and managing media and try to be as forthcoming with information which as possible which was not easy given there was a lot of rumour and misinformation,” he said.

“These were the days before alternative facts became a thing, at least a defined thing. But they were very much to the fore during that whole story. There was some terrible pieces of reporting. It wasn’t our industry’s finest hour, let’s just say. I went back later in the year for two months for the inquest and it became clear that it was natural causes. It was a very sad time for those of us who knew him.”

From the ICC Fitzgerald returned to Dublin to work with World Rugby and then moved to Montreal in 2017 to begin working with WADA.

“When you’re at an international federation, you’re dealing with one sport and you’re dealing with every aspect of that sport. At WADA we’re dealing with a single aspect of every sport and all over the world. So that has been a change and a real learning curve to get up to speed on anti-doping issues and everything that’s going on within the world on that. One thing I have learned is that everything is more complicated than it seems, at first. So WADA as an organisation is unique in many ways, as far as I know, because it’s a collaboration between sports and governments of the world,” he said.

It is a collaboration that has many critics who want WADA to take a tougher stance in combatting drugs in sport.

“WADA is representative of sports federations and the governments of the world. Within that representative, there’s athletes, we have a range of committees, where there’s other representatives too, whether it’s experts, but also national anti doping organisations and all the rest of that. But I mean, you’re talking about sports. We have the greatest anti doping scandal of all time in Russia and it was not a sport that was organising that, that was an institutionalised system, within a country. So, I mean, when you’re at that level, it does get difficult to be across all of that,” he said.

WADA was disappointed by the Court of Arbitration for Sport’s decision to reduce the ban on Russia. WADA was not the judge and jury, Fitzgerald says, but the prosecutor. It still led many to express their disappointment.

“We weren’t the ones who said it should be two years,” Fitzgerald says.

James Fitzgerald

The British Paralympian Ali Jawad said in the aftermath that  WADA was not fit for purpose. “I’ve always been hesitant for calls for an alternative system,” he said. “I’ve always believed in helping create a strong Wada. But the events of the last five years, the lack of athlete voices, and the constant compromise with Russia has made me realise that Wada is not fit for purpose.”

Fitzgerald disagrees.

“You need to ask Ali that but I don’t think it’s fair to say that we were compromising with Russia when we went through a whole process of compliance, non compliance, investigations, that went on since 2015. We had the Dick Pound investigation, we had the McLaren investigation, we had our own Intelligence and Investigations Unit go into the laboratory information management system and get all the information we needed to prosecute a case. We did that and we did it as strongly and as forcefully as the rules allowed,” he said.

“And ultimately, we decided that a four-year suspension for all Russian sport at the Olympics and other world championships and various other consequences that were attached to that was appropriate. I don’t see how that’s compromising. I think that that’s a fact that it didn’t get through the Court of Arbitration of sport is a question for them. But we went after Russia. And we went after them in a very, very strong way”

Many will be angered by what happened in Russia but look away when sportspeople from their own country

“The rest of the world might be obsessed with Russia. But WADA isn’t obsessed with Russia, we have a lot of focuses around the world and our investigators are looking at all sorts of things going on. That’s been evident in the reports that they’ve issued and the cases that have been brought. Certainly we would be very naive, and anyone would be naive to think, that doping cannot go on in their own backyard or doesn’t go on in their own backyard. WADA certainly does not get obsessed with one particular country or one particular region.”

Intelligence is as much a part of WADA’s armoury now as testing. There will be testing at the Olympics of course, but as Dick Pound once said, if you are stupid enough to fail a test during the next few weeks, it’s an IQ test you’ve failed not a dope test. This is why intelligence drives more at WADA but also why some can’t suspend disbelief when they watch the Olympics.

For WADA, that fight will always go on.

“We’d be naive to think that we are at a stage or possibly could even get to a stage where people won’t try and get around the rules for that for their own gain. And that’s the same in any walk of life, whether it’s sports, or business, or anything else where there are rules, and people who are willing to break those rules. So in the same way, that a police force isn’t going to sit on its laurels and say there’s no more crime left, we’ve done it. I don’t think WADA would ever take the foot off the pedal and declare victory over drug cheats. That’s not in our future, I don’t think.”