What we learned from the anti-doping Congressional hearing

By Ammar Moussa

March 1, 2017

Yesterday, the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations of the Committee on Energy and Commerce held a hearing titled “Ways to Improve and Strengthen the International Anti-Doping System.” As a little Hill staffer that has particularly strong feelings about the anti-doping movement (check out my ramblings and rants on Twitter), I couldn’t have been more excited. Let me give you a quick rundown why yesterday gave me hope, but also depressed me (things are weird these days) and how we move forward.

So, a hearing is basically a chance for members of Congress to gather information that inform policymaking. So with that being said, the Subcommittee called in five witnesses to testify on the state of anti-doping, and to support efforts to strengthen clean competition.

The Witnesses

  • Michael Phelps: Do I really need to write a bio on him?
  • Adam Nelson: American gold medalist shot putter. Actually won the silver medal in Athens, but because of a retroactive doping suspension, he got elevated to gold nine years later. He famously received his gold medal in the Atlanta airport food court.
  • Travis Tygart-CEO of the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA): All-around bulldog who went after Lance Armstrong for years, putting his career and reputation on the line.
  • Rob Koehler-Deputy Director General, World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA)
  • Richard Budgett, M.D., medical and Scientific Director, International Olympic committee

Why yesterday’s Congressional hearing was important

Besides the IOC, the United States is the second biggest financier of WADA’s budget. The United States contributes roughly $2 million a year to WADA’s $30 million budget. So, every so often, Congress wants to make sure it’s spending its money wisely.

By calling upon star power like Michael Phelps and Adam Nelson, the Committee dramatically brightened the spotlight on anti-doping officials to ensure that they would properly be held accountable before Congress and the press.

Congress has limited authority with how it can hold international governing bodies accountable. But what it can do is publicly bring to light gross incompetence and ineffectiveness.

And that they did. Members from both sides of the aisle squared their sights on Dr. Budgett and Mr. Koheler as the representatives of WADA and the IOC to ask them….what the hell are you doing? Both Republicans and Democrats alike bore into the IOC and WADA (after an amount of fawning over Phelps’ and Nelson’s accomplishments).

Even more interesting was the way USADA CEO Travis Tygart subtly threw some shade at the IOC and WADA while they were sitting right next to him. His constant mantra throughout the hearing was likening IOC overseeing WADA like “a fox guarding the henhouse” (More on what that means later).

Why Yesterday’s hearing was disappointing

I guess I’m just that guy who has to find sadness somewhere. With that being said, it’s really hard to find much to be disappointed with. This hearing brings issues to the forefront of a hyper partisan political discourse.

IOC and WADA spewed in the standard platitudes about how they care about clean sport and how they are doing everything they can to ensure that sport gets cleaner. The main fight is over the IOC’s ability to truly govern over WADA, and the inherent conflict of interest that exists in the governing body also as the police force. The IOC is fighting tooth and nail to maintain overseer status over WADA. This is the critical issue for reformers like Travis Tygart. Given the gross incompetence of WADA and the inherent conflict of interest that the IOC and sporting federations have displayed, the question that members of was whether the IOC was prepared to remove itself from WADA, as Tygart repeatedly challenged the IOC and WADA officials on this.

And then Dr. Budgett said the “IOC is in the process of removing the fox from the henhouse.” Pushed to clarify, Dr. Budgett said that it’s ready to remove itself from investigations and testing, but looking to have some connection with governance.

And this is the critical point that that comes out of the hearing. Outside of the talking points, the one interesting development is that IOC has opened the door to divesting itself from WADA. But according to athletes, advocates, and Travis Tygart that is not enough, and it still a case of the “fox guarding the henhouse.”

Moving Forward

This is where I get controversial. I have an immense respect for Travis Tygart and the work he has done. I’ve had the chance to talk to him in the past. But with that being said, as CEO of USADA, he cannot be the vessel for athlete advocacy. He cannot be the hero and also the product of the system that he rails against. Tygart calls for anti-doping independence because the IOC cannot be expected to govern and hold itself accountable at the same time. This criticism is fair. But questions must be answered before the “fox is removed from the henhouse.” Who ends up being the independent arbiters of clean sport? Read more about the questions and these issues here from CU professor, Roger Piekle, Jr.

No one really knows what “independence” looks like. It seems that the IOC and WADA and USADA and athletes all have different expectations. There are more issues to be discussed. Due process for athletes (a subject that Adam Nelson really knocked out of the park yesterday), the size of the prohibited list, and ultimately granting power to sanction those beyond the athletes. All of these are issues to be addressed, and in my humble opinion, the structure of oversight over whatever the ultimate anti-doping police force looks like.

Have a few hours to spare, here’s the full hearing: