The world’s anti-doping force has capitulated and let Russia off the hook. Ben Sandford, Olympian, lawyer and Labour candidate tells Phil Taylor why he didn’t resign as an athlete rep in protest.
The world’s anti-doping force has capitulated and let Russia off the hook. Rotorua man Ben Sandford, former Olympic skeleton racer, lawyer and Labour candidate, is the only New Zealand representative.
Ben Sandford spent the best part of his young life hurtling headfirst down icy foreign mountains at up to 150km/h on something akin to an oven tray.
Until he retired four years ago, aged 35, Sandford was a skeleton racer. The sport took him to three Olympics, gained him a world championship medal and led him into the “bitter and complicated” world of sports politics as an athlete representative.
The route may yet take him to Parliament. At last year’s election, Sandford gained 31 per cent of the vote as Labour’s candidate in the Rotorua electorate, behind National’s Todd McClay, who won 53 per cent. He hopes to stand again in 2020.
At 1.99m and 93kg, and with a wild mop of dark hair, Sandford cut a striking figure in his speed suit.
When he sits down for this interview, he is in a business suit, with a business haircut, but his choice of a spectacularly colourful pair of socks speak of his individuality. He may be back in his hometown, Rotorua, working at his father’s law firm and living again in the home he grew up in, but Sandford has always beaten his own path.
We talk politics and sport in that family home, a house with grand bones and a sweeping view of Lake Rotorua, while a happy cat naps on a sofa and two dogs slumber in a side room.
The talking point is the decision to allow Russia back into the game, despite it refusing to acknowledge the finding it ran a state-organised doping operation (the biggest, evidence suggests, since the East Germans in the 70s and 80s) or hand over thousands of samples that could lead to athlete bans.
A Guardian headline: “Wada appears to have complied with Russia — wasn’t it meant to be the other way round?” Yes, says Sandford. “I’m absolutely gutted. It’s a huge blow for clean athletes.”
The World Anti-Doping Agency’s slogan is “Play True”, chosen in 2002 because, in the agency’s words, “it stands for the universal spirit of sports practised without artifice and in full respect of the established rules”.
It’s a double standard, says Sandford. Clean athletes comply with a huge amount of regulations in the name of fair sport. “Can we all be held to the same standard please? The look of it is terrible. You are appeasing one of the biggest countries in the world with the funds to pour into sport.”
Sandford is part of a solid Kiwi connection to Wada. Wellington lawyer David Howman ran the agency from 2003 until 2016.
Its executive committee last month voted 9-2 to reinstate Russia’s anti-doping agency, Rusada.
New Zealand, representing Oceania, and Norway voted against. Votes in favour came from the Olympic lobby, which wants Russia at the Games, and from world sport bodies incentivised by Russia’s willingness to underwrite international events held on its territory, such as this year’s Football World Cup.
Howman called it “a triumph for money over clean sport”. Sports Minister Grant Robertson said the decision made it hard for him to look New Zealand athletes in the eye.
Some athlete representatives have talked of quitting in protest. Sandford will stay and fight from within.
“There is no real athlete voice around the Wada executive board. That has to change. Athletes need a voice at the [big] table and to be able to vote.”
It is in Sandford’s nature to want to be involved in shaping rules that affect him. That led to him being voted on to the athlete committee of the International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation and to similar roles on the New Zealand Olympic Committee, then Wada.
LIFE MAY have been different had he been better at cricket. A sports-mad kid, he was determined to represent his country, preferably as a Black Cap. When that dream faded, the obscure sport of skeleton was waiting.
His uncle, Bruce Sandford, had been world champion. “I thought, if he can turn up from New Zealand and win, why couldn’t I? He wrote me a top-secret manual, a book. It had everything, the history, his processes for analysing tracks, the equipment I needed, [advice] that I should listen to everyone, trust no one and develop my own theory of sliding.
“That made me realise it wasn’t enough to be physically the strongest, you had to understand the dynamics of driving and sliding and solving the problems on the track.”
It was, Sandford says, “weird to sort of step into my uncle’s shoes”.
“He’d been world champion and that had sort of blown people’s minds, the fact this New Zealander had turned up and beaten them at their own game, the first nonEuropean to win a world championship.” And Sandford the younger did the family name proud, winning a world championship bronze 30 years after his uncle’s 1992 success.
That made Sandford and Sandford the only people from the Southern Hemisphere to win world championship medals in skeleton, bobsleigh or luge.
The common response when he mentions he raced skeleton is, what is that?
“Then you ask if they saw the movie Cool Runnings. Then you say, well that is bobsleigh. We slide down the same track but head first. Then they think you are lucky to be alive.”
Skeleton emerged in Switzerland in the late 19th century, apparently to amuse British holidaymakers.
The seated sledges became the bobsleigh, the stripped-down sleds became the skeleton, so-named because they look like a metal ribcage.
A skeleton sled is heavy, about 35kg, but also unnervingly inconsequential for something that carries the rider centimetres above the ice at breakneck speed.
“There’s no feeling that compares. Because you are in a chute and don’t have things flying past, it’s a tunnelfocused sensation.
“You don’t have brakes and you are only going to get faster and you have to make it to the bottom. When you are new to the sport, knowing you are locked in for the run is a really bizarre feeling.”
Sandford was hooked at his first try — at a sliding school in Austria.
“The adrenalin and the feeling of being on the ice, that sense that you are flying and gliding and that you can control that.”
Serious accidents are rare but do happen. A Georgian athlete was killed when his sled flew out of the chute during preparation for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.
“It was an enormous shock,” says Sandford, who was there.
“They had set out to build a difficult track and a fast track but none of us ever thought someone was going to end up dying.”
Sandford describes his uncle as “a real character” and tells a classic Kiwi story to prove it. Soon after becoming world champion he tried to dig a natural sliding track on Mt Ruapehu, convinced it would be the next sensation for thrill-seekers after bungee jumping.
Usually tracks are made of concrete and the ice is built up using ammonia gas and an enormous refrigerating unit.
The one natural track in the world, says Sandford, is in St Moritz, Switzerland, where it is -25C at night.
Ruapehu barely gets below freezing. Uncle Bruce persevered and a track of sorts emerged — “a bumpy, lumpy thing, hilariously homemade but also amazing because he did it” — and TV turned up to film the world champion make a run.
“He’s saying how everyone should come and experience skeleton and how it’s safe and it’s fantastic but all the while he’s grabbing his arm [and] as soon as they stop filming he’s off to the medic centre.
“An icicle had pierced an artery. If you look carefully you can see blood squirting out between his fingers.”
SANDFORD, WHO is a specialist in sports law, misses the actual sliding more than the competition. He put up his hand in politics for the same reason he became an athletes’ representative: fairness.
He’s lived in a lot of countries, some were “incredibly unfair and unequal”, and some he thought were on the right track and pursuing policies based on evidence.
New Zealand, he thought, was heading the wrong way.
“I could see the policies we were following and where we were going and I didn’t want to live in a country that took that route.”
A more selfish country?
“We were becoming a more divided country, a country no longer looking after the pillars that made us what we are, around housing, education, healthcare, making sure we give people a fair chance, making sure people have opportunity.”
People often compliment him, he says, for succeeding in an individual sport practised on the other side of the world. But, he says, he came from privilege: supportive family and friends and an uncle who had blazed the way.
“I’ve been able to get by only through the generosity of people around me, and I’ve been lucky too.”
Claims that Wada was targeted by Russian government hackers will appal but not surprise him. Nor will official denials. “This entire [doping] system has been found out but the Russian authorities have still denied that it existed.”
Has Wada been hijacked by business interests? Certain people in the Olympic movement, says Sandford, have been pushing to have Rusada back for a long time.
“Those people have got their way. That’s really unfortunate. I think it is enormously damaging to the credibility of Wada and what it stands for, or what Wada should be standing for.” But it’s not a “death blow”. “You need an organisation like Wada to regulate anti-doping on an international level.
“If people are suggesting getting rid of Wada, you are going to have to recreate it in a similar fashion.” FREE FREE My Flex SIM SIM FREE PRICE DROP SIM
The look of it is terrible. You are appeasing one of the biggest countries in the world with the funds to pour into sport.
Ben Sandford will stay and fight: “Athletes need a voice at the [big] table”.
Ben Sandford takes part in the skeleton heats at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.