Having a clean culture - is it possible?


Greg Searle discusses the importance of succeeding honestly and fairly

As another story breaks about athletes testing positive for illegal drug use, I find myself questioning what sort of culture exists that not only allows this abuse but, in many cases, perpetuates it. I believe that in British rowing we have always maintained a zero tolerance culture towards doping and, while I feel saddened that the build up to the Rio Olympics is being marred by the dark cloud of drug cheats, I am also heartened because the World Anti-Doping Agency seems to be taking it very seriously and justice may be served.

Lane4’s research from ‘The Art of Culture Change’ whitepaper helps us to understand that all organisations have their culture and that this is a key ingredient in performance. This is shaped not by what is openly articulated on most companies’ websites but by the behaviours experienced on a daily basis by those within the organisation. What becomes important is what is rewarded and celebrated in our informal interactions. Ask yourself what is recognised and promoted in your organisation and do these behaviours fit with the espoused organisational culture?

Olympic sport wants to create a clean and transparent culture where we can trust the performances we see in the sporting arenas in Rio and beyond. Throughout my rowing career I feel 100% confident that I was competing alongside clean team mates and, largely, against clean competitors. If the playing field hadn’t been level I would probably not have enjoyed the success of winning as a 20 year old in Barcelona 1992 or medalling as a 40 year old in London 2012. So how has rowing maintained this culture? Throughout our season we would go on training camps and each morning we would collect and share our “well-being” data openly.The first thing we did after waking up was to wander through the hotel in our underwear to find the physiologist’s room where we would provide samples of blood and urine. These, along with our body weight and resting heart rate, would be recorded by the physiologist and coxes from the team. If athletes were ill or injured, we all knew about it. They would see our team doctor who would prescribe the appropriate treatment and we would never go directly to the chemist to self-medicate to avoid the risk of accidentally using a prohibited substance. The levels of trust are so high that I believe if a Team GB rower were to test positive then the rest of the squad would be firstly flabbergasted and secondly would ostracise the individual. 

When I look to what is happening now I think it's great they are unfreezing samples from past Olympic Games. A recent report said that 31 athletes from six sports could be banned from Rio Games after 454 samples from 2008 were re-tested. I think this number is set to increase over the coming weeks. I feel strongly that if the cheating which appears to be endemic with the culture of some nations and sports is to stop those athletes should not only miss Rio but also face a lifetime ban and I think this story illustrates why. When the newly-completed Olympic lake at Eton Dorney hosted the 2006 World Rowing Championships it was a chance for British athletes to shine on their home water. An exciting women’s quadruple sculls race saw the British crew, which included Katherine Grainger, get beaten into second place by the fast-finishing Russians. Five months later the news came out that one of the Russian women had tested positive for testosterone. Our crew received their gold medals in the post. While justice may have been served for the record books, those four British athletes were robbed of the ‘once in a lifetime’ moment all athletes dream of – crossing the line in first place and then standing on top of the podium knowing you’ve earned it through blood, sweat and tears. Having stolen this moment, I believe we can have no second chances for those perpetrators of this injustice and that is why I believe in the lifetime ban.

Russian sports minister, Vitaly Mutko, has defended their position but he needs to be pressurised into changing the culture that has allowed systematic drug abuse for so long. Lane4’s research recognises the need to create a detailed map of where you are coming from before you can work out what to hold on to and what to change. In the case of Russian sport, it looks like there is very little to be kept and most things need to change.


An organisation which maintains a culture of openness, mutual respect and reward for doing the “right thing” is far more likely to be effective, competitive and high performing than one which cheats itself and others in the pursuit of short-term success.

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