Why the US wants to police international athletes

By Rodney Wahl

A new bill in the US Congress will make doping in international sports a crime, which the US law would prosecute under its own jurisdiction. The proposed Act is clearly designed to punish Russia, but may affect many others.

The “Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act”, named after the controversial former head of the Moscow anti-doping lab, whose claims became the basis of sweeping doping sanctions against Russia, was submitted to both chambers of the US Congress.

The Act states that the impact on the results of the competition with the help of doping harms American athletes, sponsors and organisations. The authors of the bill say the US sports market exceeds US$500 billion, and such collusion causes significant harm to the sports sector of the economy, as well as provoking corruption and money laundering.

Once adopted into law, it will make doping in international sports a criminal offense, a form of fraud, punishable by up to 10 years in prison and fines of up to $1 million. It will also allow civil lawsuits to be filed in US courts against people and organisations involved. Restitution of damages may be filed by American athletes over losing prize money and by event sponsors.

The introduction of the bill to Congress was a response to the decision of WADA to maintain the compliance status for the Russian Anti-Doping Agency (RUSADA). In a press release issued by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, it states that the Rodchenkov Act was directed against Russia and should lead to severe sanctions against it.

The IOC criticised the bill, saying the US should first clean its own house before claiming the right to serve as the doping watchman of the world.

“We very much appreciate and welcome moves in the United States to step up the fight against doping and we assume that the very worrying existing challenges with some of the professional leagues in the United States will be addressed as a matter of urgency,” an IOC spokesman told sports news site, insidethegames, at the time. “Especially since this has become extremely obvious again in the last report of USADA which details the low level of testing currently taking place in these professional leagues.”

USADA has been criticised for conducting few or even no tests of the country’s professional basketball, football and baseball players, relying on the leagues to do the testing.

Illustrating the international nature of sports doping, WADA’s recent doping report on the year 2016 disclosed 1,574 athlete doping violations. Russia, tied for sixth with India, had 69 of those, approximately 4 percent of the total. The five countries with more violations than Russia are Italy (147), France (86), the United States (76), Australia (75), and Belgium (73).

Another instructive example is the doping scandal in skiing in March. Nine people have been arrested in a coordinated raid in Germany and Austria, in Erfurt and Seefeld. Five athletes and four officials (no Russians) have been caught. One of them, the German doctor Dr. Mark Schmidt, who is a well-known figure in doping since 2008. Austrian cyclist Bernhard Kohl, after he was banned for two years in 2008 and suspended, accused Doctor Schmidt of supervising doping at the 2008 Tour de France.

This case demonstrates that doping is not only a Russian phenomenon, even though the past years, we have been exclusively focused on what happened in Sochi in 2014 and about the Russian state-sponsored doping.

The “Rodchenkov Act” will be disastrous for the entire international sports movement. The initiative of US lawmakers is one more attempt to mix politics with sports and intervene in the affairs of other countries. It is a new attempt to counter the extraterritorial application of US law to generally accepted international anti-doping mechanisms.

It is a matter of concern that the intention of the proposed legislation is to put athletes from all 206 National Olympic Committees from around the world, who take part in international competition, under the criminal code of US law.

The US has a habit of imposing its criminal jurisdiction as wide as possible and treating its own court system as inherently superior to those of other nations. But isn’t it reasonable to assume that other countries would introduce similar measures, aimed directly at American athletes?

All these measures and counter-measures may lead to the collapse of the International Olympic Movement. Do we wish this? I hope – no! Then our sports authorities in Namibia and other African states should loudly and clearly support the IOC in saying “No” to the Rodchenkov Act.