Interview with Richard McLaren

Sports corruption investigator on feeling sorry for drugs cheat Marion Jones, ‘barely graduating high school’ and how sport might clean up its act

November 11, 2021

Richard McLaren is a law professor at Western University in Ontario, Canada. He has led several high-profile investigations into corruption in sport, including a 2016 report that detailed how more than 1,000 Russian athletes had benefited from doping thanks to state-sponsored cover-ups, and has undertaken inquiries into doping in US baseball and athletics. His latest report lifted the lid on fight rigging by corrupt boxing officials at the Rio Olympics in 2016.

Where and when were you born?
Toronto in 1945.

How has this shaped you?
My father returned from the Second World War and we settled in a nearby industrial city called Hamilton. Many people from Europe displaced by the war had relocated there to work in the steel mills and heavy industry where you didn’t need to speak much English, so most of my friends were not born in Canada. I grew up among Italians, French and Germans, refugees whose families had seen the horrors of war, so at a very early stage of life, I learned about the divergence of nationalities, which has served me well in the international work I do now.

What type of an undergraduate were you?
I barely graduated high school as I wasn’t very interested in my studies and instead played every sport I could. At university, when I did not make a particular football team, it made me adjust my approach to study. But I wasn’t much interested in the business world [having studied business] so I went and did a law degree at what is now Western University.

Why did you do a master’s at the London School of Economics?
I was frustrated by my law school curriculum, which didn’t focus on international law or the United Nations, which, because of my upbringing in Hamilton, interested me. I was doing well in my studies and won a government scholarship to go to the LSE. After that, I was about to take a job in Geneva at the Civil Aviation Authority when my old university in Canada offered me a teaching position.

Having taught at the LSE and Oxford, and worked in Canadian hockey, you came to prominence as a sports arbitrator at the 2000 Sydney Olympics when you investigated drug use by US track athletes, including the triple-gold-winning sprinter Marion Jones. Do you ever feel sorry for athletes involved in these controversies, even the guilty ones?
That episode began because Jones’ then-husband, C. J. Hunter [a shot-putter who tested positive for steroids], appeared pitchside with coaching credentials and there was a huge outcry. The US and international committees wanted it off the front pages so decided to establish an inquiry. I was alongside Marion Jones at a highly emotional press conference, which was more about her husband’s presence at the Olympics, and I was emotionally affected. After those Olympics I became a lot less sympathetic to athletes because it is cheating and unfair to other competitors, though that doesn’t mean I don’t feel sorry for those making bad decisions.

You’ve exposed some murky dealings in your boxing corruption and Russia inquiries. Do you ever fear for your safety when investigating?
We were definitely careful about where we went and what we were doing, and our communications are always encrypted – we know there is some risk to what we do, but it is important that people know the things we find. I’m fortunate to have the skills and the team to discover things, and people know I will report what I find without covering anything up or whitewashing.

Are you ever shocked by some of the wrongdoing you’ve uncovered?
I am not easily shocked and, as I’ve become older, I’m more immune to the circumstances I find. What puzzles me more is what makes people do these things. I find it surprising that clever people can do things that are clearly wrong but have rationalised why they’re doing them.

Doping and corruption scandals seem more frequent than ever. Will sport ever be clean?
The roots of this problem go back to the early days of modern sport, the early 1890s, when athletes were generally from the upper classes in wealthy countries, and everything was run on a volunteer basis. Sport is entirely different now, but governance systems that run sport have been slow to change. You also have referees and judges from different parts of the world whose sports give them the opportunity to fly around the world, something their day job would not give them, so we need to make some of these volunteer positions into paid jobs. Finally, businesses and charities will have someone that regulates them, offers a degree of oversight and an obligation to put everything into the public domain – many sports don’t have that. Instead, it’s usually friends, competitors or those who love the sport involved with tournaments, though this is starting to change.

Tell us about someone you admire.
I worked alongside US Senator George J. Mitchell for our investigation into Major League Baseball. We would go to lunch and he’d explain how he handled the Northern Ireland peace negotiations and how it was comparable with baseball. He thought we should draw a curtain over the past and start again and I thought we should punish those who had offended. I now see he was right.

Do you still enjoy watching sport despite the corruption you’ve documented?
My children would say that I see corruption and doping everywhere, and my reaction is sometimes sceptical. But even if it’s a sport I’m involved with, such as tennis, it still does not change my enjoyment of a contest. When I watched the US Open final between Emma Raducanu and Leylah Fernandez, from Canada, I found myself cheering hard for Fernandez.

jack.grove@timeshighereducation.com


Appointments

Paul Clark, currently chief executive of the UK’s Higher Education Statistics Agency, is joining UCL as its first vice-president (strategy). Previously director of policy at Universities UK, Mr Clark will be tasked with developing the institution’s new five-year plan when he starts in the post next spring. UCL has also appointed Kathleen Armour, currently pro vice-chancellor (education) at the University of Birmingham, vice-provost (education and student experience), and has promoted director of development Angharad Milenkovic to vice-president (advancement).

Durham University is hiring Shaid Mahmood as its first pro vice-chancellor (equality, diversity and inclusion). Currently chief officer for transformation and change at Leeds City Council, Dr Mahmood – who has a PhD in polymer chemistry from the University of Sheffield – will take up the new post in February. Antony Long, Durham’s acting vice-chancellor, said Dr Mahmood’s “impressive track record of leading successful initiatives across a diverse range of communities” puts him in a “strong position” to take the university’s diversity work “to the next level”.

Paula Moya has been appointed director of Stanford University’s Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity. She is professor of English and Danily C. and Laura Louise Bell professor of the humanities at the institution.

Derek McGhee will be the next dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Stirling. He is currently faculty dean of research for humanities and social sciences at Keele University.

Stephen Bottomley has been appointed head of design at the Glasgow School of Art. He is currently head of the Birmingham Institute of Jewellery, Fashion and Textiles, part of Birmingham City University.

Mariachiara Di Cesare will be the founding director of the University of Essex’s Institute for Public Health and Wellbeing. She is currently professor of population studies and global health at Middlesex University.

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