Congress Loses Sight

Jackie McDermott, Sports Editor

The 2005 Congressional hearings that exposed steroid use by Major League Baseball’s own Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire and other home-run slammers are forever burned into America’s collective sports memory. This week, Congress revived its clean-sports crusade, urging reform of World Anti-Doping Agency policy and berating members of the International Olympic Committee for their handling of last summer’s Russian doping scandal.

While Congress’ quest to eradicate cheating in international sports seems noble, it pales in comparison to some other issues our legislative body faces. Why should a Congress tasked with replacing Obamacare, probing Trump’s ties to Russia and fighting a nationwide heroin epidemic spend its time trying to prevent Russian athletes from using Meldonium?

Tuesday’s hearing amounted to nothing more than an empty political gesture. Congress does not have the power to significantly influence global anti-doping policy, and attempting to do so could unduly interfere with the bid to bring the Olympics to Los Angeles in 2024. Congress should stay out of international doping issues.

The main agenda for members of the House subcommittee on oversight and investigations on Tuesday was to wrist-slap some of the United States’ top anti-doping officials. Both the IOC and WADA have been accused of failing to act swiftly on tips from whistleblowers regarding Russia’s illegal state-sanctioned doping. When they did levy punishment on Russia, Congress claimed that the IOC’s sanctions were not severe enough.

The subcommittee’s alleged cause for concern was the $2 million that the U.S. provides to WADA each year, making the U.S. WADA’s biggest contributor. But it’s clear that Congress was not motivated simply by budgetary concerns, as evidenced by Representative Tim Murphy’s comments to The New York Times.

“It isn’t just the money the United States puts into this,” Murphy said. “If it takes money to motivate things, fine, but the real reason is: I want sports to be fair.”

While Murphy may want sports to be fair from a fan’s perspective, it’s doubtful he can have any effect on worldwide doping as a Congressperson. Even if the House wanted to throw more money at WADA to fund reform, it may not be able to do so. The terms of WADA’s funding arrangement are laid out in an international agreement. Further, the amount of money it would take to fix WADA is astronomical. Don Catlin, former director of the UCLA Olympic Analytical Lab estimates that the worldwide anti-doping budget is about $300 million. Even those funds are insufficient to test 100,000 or more athletes around the globe, and staff and maintain 35 testing labs, contributing a few million more would be just a drop in the bucket.

Regardless, strong-arming the IOC into cracking down on Russia may not be advisable. The United States National Olympic Committee is currently lobbying to host the 2024 summer Olympic games in Los Angeles. Bringing the games to L.A. for the third time would not only be a boon for the NOC, it would bring the greatest competitors and most enthusiastic fans on earth back to the U.S. during the summer for the first time since the 1996 Atlanta games. Targeting Russia is particularly problematic, as the House subcommittee’s insistence that stronger sanctions should have been levied against Russia ruffled the feathers of IOC members. The IOC is used to independence and takes offense at governmental scrutiny. But even more importantly, three IOC members who will vote on the 2024 bid are Russian.

“Fighting with an organization responsible for giving future Olympic Games — it’s a big mistake,” said Vitaly Smirnov, a Russian Olympic official, in an interview with The New York Times.

Congress potentially made a big mistake Tuesday by dipping its toes in anti-doping reform and threatening the Los Angeles Olympic bid. Despite Congress’ desperate desire to promote clean sport and fair play, in the future, it should recognize that any efforts on its part to clean up sports on an international scale are fruitless.