The anti-doping cop capitulated last month and let Russia off the hook. Ben Sandford, Olympian, lawyer, Labour candidate tells why he didn't resign from the World Anti-Doping Agency in protest.

Ben Sandford spent the best part of his young life hurtling head first down icy foreign mountains at up to 150kmh on something akin to an oven tray.

Until he retired four years ago at the age of 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.

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.


At 1.99m and 93kg and with a wild mop of dark hair, Sandford cut a striking figure in his speed suit.

When he sat down for this interview, he wore a business suit and a business haircut but his choice of a spectacularly-colourful pair of socks spoke of his individuality. He may be back in 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 that 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."

Ben Sandford takes part in the skeleton heats at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Photo / Getty Images
Ben Sandford takes part in the skeleton heats at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Photo / Getty Images

Wada'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.

New Zealand, representing Oceania, and Norway last month voted against reinstating Russia's anti-doping agency, Rusada, while nine voted in favour.

These came from the Olympic lobby (five votes), which wants Russia at the Olympics and from world sports bodies incentivised by Russia's willingness to underwrite international events held on its territory.

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 be able to vote."

It is in Sandford's nature to want to be involved in shaping the 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 and then on Wada.

And to general politics. Sandford plans to seek the nomination to stand again for Labour in the 2020 election.

Life may have been different had he been better at cricket. He was a sports-mad kid, 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".

Ben Sandford will stay and fight:
Ben Sandford will stay and fight: "Athletes need a voice at the [big] table". Photo / Alan Gibson

Uncle Bruce was a legend in sliding sports.

"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 non-European to win a world championship."

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 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 and we slide down the same track but headfirst. 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, at 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 tunnel-focused 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."

That run was on a beginners track and the group started from half way but not everyone responded as he did.

"The next person came down and was crying, and the next person was bleeding."

Serious accidents are rare but do happen. A Georgian athlete was killed when his sled flew out of the chute on Whistler Mountain 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. It's never one thing, a number of small errors ended in this catastrophe."

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 in Happy Valley (Mt Ruapehu), convinced it would be the next sensation for thrillseekers after bungee jumping.

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.

Ben Sandford during the Men's Skeleton on Day 8 of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics. Photo / Getty Images
Ben Sandford during the Men's Skeleton on Day 8 of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics. Photo / Getty Images

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 plans to stay involved as an advocate for athletes in an arena that sounds pretty rough.

"There's so much more politics in sport than in politics. Politics [in New Zealand] is nowhere near as nasty and bitter and complicated."

He says he put his hand up 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 which was no longer looking after the pillars that made us what we are, around housing, education, health care, making sure we give people a fair chance, making sure people have opportunity."

And, he found a culture of "blaming people who have less for having less". The consequences, he says, can be seen in the likes of housing and mental health problems.

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."

Recent claims that Wada was targetted by Russian government hackers will appal but not surprise Sandford. Nor will official denials.

"This entire [doping] system has been found out but the Russian authorities have still denied that it existed."

Had 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 the end of Wada.

"I don't think it is 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."

How the scandal unfolded

December 2014: As many as 99% of Russian athletes are guilty of doping, a German TV documentary alleges.
November 2015: A Wada-commissioned report alleges widespread corruption in Russian track and field athletics. Rusada is declared non-compliant.
May 2016: Former Moscow anti-doping laboratory boss Grigory Rodchenkov turns whistleblower, says dozens of Russian athletes at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi had cheated.
July 2016: Russia operated a state-sponsored doping programme for four years across the "vast majority" of summer and winter Olympic sports, says a report by Professor Richard McLaren.
August 2016: IOC decides against imposing a blanket ban on Russian athletes at the 2016 Olympics in Rio. Individual sporting federations rule instead, with 271 Russians competing.
December 2016: Wada publishes the second part of the McLaren report which says more than 1000 Russian athletes benefited from doping.
January 2017: Rusada and Russian sport authorities given list of criteria to achieve before winning back recognition.
February 2018: Russia banned from 2018 Winter Olympics by the IOC, but 169 athletes who prove they are clean allowed to compete under a neutral flag.
May 2018: Wada writes to Rusada offering "compromise"solution.
September 2018: Wada executive committee votes 9-2 to reinstate Rusada.

- Source: BBC