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A multi-level legitimacy analysis of the World Anti-Doping Agency

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posted on 26.11.2020, 00:33 by Daniel ReadDaniel Read
Effective anti-doping policy is critical to sport because of the significant implications it has for the working conditions and careers of athletes globally, as well as the need to guarantee competition free from corruption. Therefore, growing criticisms of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) regime raise concerns for the management and governance of sport. Following a review of the literature, a lack of support from athletes and signatories was identified as a critical problem with the WADA regime. Multi-level legitimacy theory (Bitektine & Haack, 2015) conceptualises behaviour as a result of an individual’s judgement of an organisation’s legitimacy based on the appropriateness of the organisation’s aims and actions as well as an individual’s evaluation of how others judge the legitimacy of the same organisation. Consequently, the aim of this thesis is to analyse the legitimacy of the WADA regime from a multi-level legitimacy perspective. In doing so, the thesis makes a novel contribution to knowledge about why the WADA regime suffers from a lack of behavioural support from signatories.

Based on the assumption that legitimacy judgements are socially constructed phenomena that vary between individuals, this thesis used a qualitative approach to study the legitimacy of the WADA regime. Applying a qualitative case study approach, five subunits (the Lausanne Conference, the Whereabouts System, Lance Armstrong and the Union Cycliste Internationale, Therapeutic Use Exemptions, the Russian Olympic Doping Scandal) were identified from historical press coverage of the WADA regime to study how its legitimacy has been challenged, and how WADA has responded. Data from newspaper articles, archival sources and press releases were supported with data from 14 semi-structured interviews with purposefully sampled individuals from the anti-doping field.

Thematic analysis was conducted to generate themes in relation to each subunit, which then contributed to three main findings and an insight into the legitimacy of WADA. Firstly, it is argued that through the creation of WADA and its position in the Olympic Charter, members (e.g., the International Federations) were coerced into accepting policy. Consequently, legitimacy challenges occur due to the restrained institutional complexity anti-doping creates for signatories. Secondly, WADA has prioritised legitimacy sources based on their value to the organisation meaning that WADA actions and policies have been reactive and directed by the sources with most influence over WADA. Finally, WADA has relied on high agency responses to avoid acquiescing to legitimacy challenges from certain sources. As a result,WADAs Executive Committee has been able to prioritise the interests of committee members and is vulnerable to regulatory capture.

The contribution made in this thesis suggest that, from a multi-level legitimacy perspective, WADA’s lack of behavioural support from signatories can be attributed to both the restrained institutional complexity signatories find themselves subject to as well as WADA’s resistance to challenges. However, it is concluded that WADA is perceived as legitimate, because in its current state, it offers pragmatic benefits to sources who may not want effective anti-doping policies and is recognised by those who do want to improve anti-doping as the only feasible arrangement. It is simultaneously vulnerable as an institution because of this contrast. The paradox of an institution being both legitimate and constantly vulnerable can be resolved by theorising that the content of legitimacy judgements at a macro-level can vary along pragmatic, moral and cognitive dimensions. This distinction has significant implications for anti-doping and the future study of institutions. If WADA does not attempt to diversify the base of support it receives, it will always be beholden to beliefs of the Olympic Movement. This paradox can be applied to understanding the persistence and fall of other institutions in sport.



  • Loughborough University London


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A Doctoral Thesis. Submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the award of the degree of Doctor of Philosophy of Loughborough University.




James Skinner ; Daniel Lock ; Barrie Houlihan

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