Sport integrity expert explains what happens if South Africa win World Cups under a ‘neutral flag’ amid WADA penalties

Ian Smith believes this is a case of ‘blackmail’ from WADA, it was more than likely unavoidable as the South African Government need legislation and it's taken them too long to do anything.

Sport integrity expert explains what happens if South Africa win World Cups under a ‘neutral flag’ amid WADA penalties
Dillip Mohanty

Written by: Dillip Mohanty

(Sports Editor)

Last updated: 2023-10-06

South Africa may face flag ban in the ICC Cricket World Cup

There's a possibility that the South Africa Cricket team in the ICC Men's Cricket World Cup might play without their national flag. The same could happen in South Africa's quarter-final match in the Rugby World Cup in France too.

This is because the South African government missed a deadline to update its outdated drug-free sports act. South Africa has not been able to comply with the new World Anti-Doping Code (WADA) which became effective on 1 January 2021.

South Africa has less than a week (by 13 October) to comply with the World Anti-Doping Code or the Springboks and Proteas will find themselves unable to fly the country’s flag at their respective World Cups. Meanwhile, the South African Institute for Drug-Free Sport (SAIDS) had warned the Government of the consequences over a year ago.

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This is a case of ‘blackmail’ from WADA, it was more than likely unavoidable as the South African government need legislation and it's taken them too long to do anything about it, adding that the South African Rugby and Cricket teams have essentially become “pawns in a game of power between WADA and the South African government.

Ian Smith on WADA and South Africa Government stand-off

Amid the scandal, Sportsboom.com spoke with sports integrity expert Ian Smith about what this actually means for the defending rugby world champions.

Saturday’s Rugby World Cup 2023 quarterfinal might see South Africa’s Springboks playing under a neutral flag. South Africa’s Proteas may also face the same fate as the Cricket World Cup in India.

Former Legal Director of the Professional Cricketers Association and COO of the Federation of International Cricketers Association (now Integrity Commissioner of the Esports Integrity Coalition) Ian Smith explained the recent events surrounding South Africa and the anti-doping bill issue.

Smith said that should South Africa win the Rugby World Cup as currently defending champions, but the final is after the deadline set by WADA it’s going to be very difficult to if South Africa won the event or “just some group of people competing in the World Cup under some kind of mythical neutral flag”.

The sport integrity expert added that “there's no clear precedent” when dealing with a world event like the Rugby World Cup or Cricket World Cup as the only other instance is the Russian example where Russian athletes have previously been excluded from events by sports governing bodies because of failure to comply to anti-doping legislation but been allowed to compete under a neutral flag.

“What that means is that the athlete wins a medal or place or prize. But it's not attributed to Russia. So, in other words, in the country competition, they are not present. That has been the outcome historically, so you can have an athlete who won a bronze medal at the Winter Olympics from Russia. However, this means Russia did not participate in the Winter Olympics. It didn't win medals, it didn't come anywhere on the country medal table.  

“Now in this case you've got two teams already participating in an event, in one of which they're actually the defending world champions. So the question becomes what does it mean if they're right to compete under the flag is removed. What that means is entirely in the governing bodies hands to go ‘ok, we get to decide what that means’. Does it mean that 15 individuals are now the Rugby World champions if South Africa win? It's a very, very difficult question.”

Smith said: “It's very hard to know what the penalty means because the implications of that really rest with the International Cricket Council. The only precedent we have for this kind of activity, at least that I'm aware of, is the Russian athletes at the Olympics at past Olympics and other global events. This means they've participated under a neutral flag and have received individual awards for their performance, but these are not credited to the country.

"That's all very well when you're talking about an Olympic event where somebody you know is competing against somebody else at an individual level. But what that means at team level. It’s really hard to know because it it's up to the International Federation to decide the implications of that, which also then goes back to the political relationship between that federation and WADA.”

“It makes no sense when you apply these things to a world event and to some extent WADA might know that and be banking on the pressure they're putting on the South African Government.”

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Would strongly condemn the South African Government for their delays and inactivity in enacting the relevant legislation” however, at the same time “would refuse to change the arrangements of an already running tournament to comply with the idea of the South African teams competing under a neutral flag because it renders the entire competition obsolete.

Ian Smith on South Africa Government's inactivity

Smith said that while he believes this is a case of ‘blackmail’ from WADA, it was more than likely unavoidable as the South African government need legislation and it's taken them too long to do anything about it, adding that the South African Rugby and Cricket teams have essentially become “pawns in a game of power between WADA and the South African government.”

Smith added that if he were in the position to make a decision on the matter he “would strongly condemn the South African Government for their delays and inactivity in enacting the relevant legislation” however, at the same time “would refuse to change the arrangements of an already running tournament to comply with the idea of the South African teams competing under a neutral flag because it renders the entire competition obsolete.”

According to Smith World Rugby and Cricket should run the event as normal while also putting out a public statement strongly condemning the South African Government and enforcing the penalty for all future events in which South Africa is not yet up to code after the World Cup.

While Smith said he understands how allowing South Africa to compete under their flag may come off as an easy ruling “these are running events” which is why he believes WADA should have made a public announcement earlier.  

“These announcements from WADA have come while events are up and running. I think if you said for any future events, no South African athlete or team can participate as South Africa until this is resolved that is fairer than the current situation where two world events are being used to hijack what is in effect a political agenda.

“I'm not blaming WADA as I know they've been trying since 2021 to get this thing through. This is 100% at the door of the South African Government. But, it's not fair that the. South African governments failure comes home to roost with those South African teams.”

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The South African Government are slow to react to anything. It's endemically corrupt, they won't be pushed around by anybody unless there is a direct economic interest involved, and so putting pressure on the South African government is a very, very difficult thing to do.

Ian Smith on South African Government

When asked by Sportsboom what he believes has delayed the legislation so much, Smith blamed “Incompetence and apathy” from The South African Government.

“The South African Government are slow to react to anything. It's endemically corrupt, they won't be pushed around by anybody unless there is a direct economic interest involved, and so putting pressure on the South African government is a very, very difficult thing to do.

“I suspect that this enabling legislation as simple as it probably is, has been bouncing around the legislative timetable and just keeps getting pushed out further down the list by what other people consider priorities, which is generally going to be economically related bills. It comes down to a combination of incompetence and corruption and apathy. That just keeps pushing it down, down, down, down until suddenly it becomes a crisis like this.” 

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Dillip Mohanty

Dillip Mohanty

Dillip has over two decades of experience in creating sports content. As the Sports Editor of SportsBoom, Dillip brings in a wealth of experience and expertise to the role. Dillip has worked with leading sports broadcasters and sports web content portals in Asia. He is an adept storyteller and has a special liking for data stories. He has a keen interest in data analysis and uncovering insights from large datasets. He loves to tell the story with rich and compelling data visualisation.

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