For many countries, victory in world sporting events is not just a matter of national pride and individual achievement, but also a means to cultivate and project power on the domestic and international stage. Although this is not a new phenomenon—recall Hitler’s use of the 1936 Olympics—today it has become more sophisticated and subtle and includes troubling new methods, avenues, and surrogates. Of these, doping fraud—the systematic application of doping through performance-enhancing drugs and related corrupt activities to defraud athletes of their rightful glory and winnings—has become especially important.
The United States is unique in its commercially oriented, highly decentralized, and largely privatized national sport governance structure. Unlike other nations, the United States has no ministry of sport. No congressional committee—or even subcommittee—is dedicated to the oversight of athletics. As a result, the United States has often remained on the sidelines of international sport governance, while other nations have taken advantage of the absence of any international oversight to harm U.S. citizens through state-sponsored doping fraud in international competitions, including the Olympics.
The one exception to U.S. disengagement in international sport governance was the 2015 FBI investigation into the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), which governs world soccer, including the World Cup. During the investigation, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) indicted more than twenty-five top FIFA officials and associates across the world for alleged decades-long racketeering, wire fraud, and money laundering. U.S. law enforcement had successfully identified that something is terribly wrong at the highest levels of global sport.
However, it was not until the dramatic revelation of institutionalized Russian doping by whistleblower Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov that the U.S. public truly understood this pervasive corruption and the enforcement gaps in the framework of international sport governance. Dr. Rodchenkov exposed undeniable evidence that numerous Olympic games had been compromised by Russian conspirators—most notably the Sochi Winter Olympics, where Russia committed doping fraud on an unprecedented scale.
The Russian government, like the East German government in the 1970s and 1980s, designed new drugs for its athletes to enhance their athletic performance and systematically encouraged or forced their athletes to take those drugs to secure victories that would enhance the image of their government. But because anti-doping laboratories and organizations had been created to make sure what the East Germans did could not be done again, the Russians had to go even further, corrupting laboratories and anti-doping groups and international sports organizations like the IOC to make sure that Russian fraud would not be discovered, and that, even if it were, it would be covered up to evade punishment.
Still, U.S. policymakers may be tempted to see these Russian conspirators as “cheaters” rather than “fraudsters.” This would allow officials to continue to assume that the rest of the world views international sport like the United States—as an expression of global camaraderie and an opportunity for talented, hardworking athletes to compete for the greatest of honors, and inspire others to do the same. What the United States must recognize is the systemic nature of the problem and the importance of world sport to autocratic states.
For Russia, victory in international sporting events is a critical component of the state’s domestic and foreign policy agenda and is advanced by Vladimir Putin’s preferred political technique: the weaponization of corruption. With the recent DOJ indictment of seven hackers in relation to Olympic doping, it has become clear that doping fraud in sports is just one cog in a larger scheme of systemic international corrupt practices that include bribery, money laundering, and hacking, among other crimes. Unfortunately, international sport governance bodies have proven ineffective in countering this phenomenon since they, in large part, are already either victims or willing facilitators.
The United States should take all necessary action to clean up international sport, both to counter geopolitical adversaries and to protect itself and its citizens from the corrupt practices of autocrats. Passage of the Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act (RADA), which would criminalize doping fraud conspiracies in international competitions, would be a powerful first step.
Call It “Doping Fraud”
State-run doping is a tool of authoritarian foreign policy. To many autocrats, major sporting events shore up the legitimacy of their regimes at home, while pushing the image of a constructive member of the international community abroad. It becomes centrally important that their national athletes triumph to demonstrate the superiority of their oppressive systems.
During the Sochi Olympics, a bevy of state agencies—the Moscow Anti-Doping Laboratory, the Sochi Laboratory, the Russian Anti-Doping Agency, Russia’s Ministry of Sport, and the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (the successor to the KGB)—all conspired to commit fraud. Through a convoluted scheme, after the Russian government gave its athletes drugs to improve their performance, urine samples were tampered with and swapped so that doped athletes tested clean. This swapping occurred right under the nose of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), which maintains the World Anti-Doping Code and monitors the compliance of national anti-doping bodies with it. WADA officials were present in the Sochi lab but apparently saw nothing.
However, this was far from the only instance of doping fraud. WADA had long suspected the Moscow Lab of systematic doping, and once instituted proceedings against its director, yet Russia consistently escaped serious sanctions. From 2011 to 2015, more than 1,000 Russian athletes were beneficiaries of state-run doping and were protected from discovery or sanctions by state-run pay-offs, and from intimidation of anyone who could undermine the scheme or punish the athletes.
This fraud has gone unpunished. Not a single individual involved in the years-long Russian doping scheme has faced legal consequences. Some of them have actually been promoted—most notably Vitaly Mutko, who was elevated from Minister of Sport to Deputy Prime Minister. Moreover, few defrauded athletes—those who would have won competitions had they not faced government-enhanced competitors—have received compensation. Only a handful have been awarded their rightfully earned medals following revelations about those who had finished ahead of them. Sometimes that recognition comes too late. U.S. bobsledder Steve Holcomb had two medals upgraded from bronze to silver but died prior to the announcement.
Even athletes who do eventually have their medals upgraded can miss out on millions of dollars in rollovers, bonuses, and sponsorships that they would have obtained had they not been defrauded. This is in addition to the emotional toll of having been wrongfully denied a lifetime’s achievement only to unceremoniously receive a medal in the mail. They do not stand on the top of the medal stand, they do not benefit from millions of people seeing them crowned as champions, and when they receive a medal years later there is no fan or commercial interest in their retroactively recognized performance.
For individuals who dedicate decades of their lives to the perfection of a sport, this nonchalant theft of life achievement can be devastating. U.S. skeleton racer Katie Uhlaender, who was defrauded of her medal by a doped Russian athlete at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, had it awarded back to her when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) stripped the medals from those who committed doping fraud in that Olympics. However, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), which resolves disputes between athletes and sport governance entities, wrongly overturned the IOC’s decision, depriving Uhlaender once again of her rightfully earned victory.
Finally, as with most fraudulent activity, guilty parties will often seek to retaliate against the whistleblowers who brought their corrupt practices to light. For example, Dr. Rodchenkov faces threats to his life and has been forced to live in hiding since his revelations. High-level Russian officials have called for him to be “shot” as Stalin would have done, and Putin has made direct and public attempts to discredit him for his whistleblowing.
Autocrats have few incentives not to engage in doping fraud. They celebrate the accomplishments of their athletes on the world stage and achieve their foreign policy goals through those achievements. Even if a sports organization later takes a medal from an athlete, the desired benefits toward international diplomacy have already been achieved. In addition, there has been no prospect of punishment of the government or sports officials who are responsible for the fraud.
Unlike many of the other forms of corruption they engage in, such as money laundering or bribery, doping fraud is not a criminal act, despite its clearly criminal consequences. Any disputes are conducted through international sport governance bodies that prevent the injured parties from bringing their claims to courts but require the disputes to be adjudicated confidentially before private arbitral panels without the power to investigate or to punish those truly responsible. Autocrats understand this and have done everything in their power to ensure that decisions made in these bodies will reflect their desired outcome.
International Sport Governance Bodies Have Failed
The international sport governance structure is sprawling, but the two most important bodies are the IOC, which governs the Olympics, and FIFA. The IOC and FIFA are complemented by CAS and WADA.
WADA has been central to the story of the Russian doping scandal. It released both the Independent Commission report in 2015, which concluded that a “deeply rooted culture of cheating” exists in Russia, and the McLaren Report in 2016, which confirmed Dr. Rodchenkov’s claims about the state-run doping program in the Sochi Olympics.
Due to the overwhelming evidence of state-run doping, the IOC suspended Russia from the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. According to The Economist, it took seven investigative reports and seven years to achieve this suspension.
The newspaper notes, “With a budget of just $30m per year, WADA is wielding a knife in a highly-charged arms race. Even when it finds clear evidence of systematic doping, as it did in Russia. . . .there is no guarantee that the IOC will act on it quickly and decisively.” Yet this suspension was still good news.
However, that is where the good news ends. Despite the official suspension at the Pyeongchang Olympics, many Russian athletes were still allowed to compete under the designation “Olympic Athlete from Russia.” Moreover, just days after the close of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, the IOC lifted Russia’s suspension. After seven investigative reports and seven years, Russia was only suspended from one Winter Olympics (none of the Russian summer Olympic athletes were ever prevented from competing), and then only barely.
Making matters worse, WADA voted to reinstate the Russian Anti-Doping Agency (RUSADA) in late September 2018, despite RUSADA’s refusal to comply with two of the major requirements for its reinstatement: accepting the findings of WADA’s McLaren Report and providing data and evidence from, as well as access to, the Moscow laboratory. Russia was permitted reinstatement despite its failure to produce thousands of stored urine samples, which would likely provide additional evidence of its doping fraud program, including the identification of many other complicit athletes. When Russia then missed a crucial December 31, 2018 deadline to turn over these samples—the one concession of RUSADA’s wrongful reinstatement—WADA once again gave Russia a free pass by voting not to suspend it.
Russia’s status has been fully restored in the international sport governance structure without addressing any of the underlying problems. Whether due to apathy or complicity—and there is good reason to believe it may be the latter, given the reputation of international sport governance bodies and those who run them—Russia has fully achieved its foreign policy aims and clean athletes are left holding the bag. If anything, this process has served to incentivize corruption, encouraging further doping fraud and demonstrating that this fraud will be tolerated. It is a further confirmation to many that all of international sport competition is corrupt and a world to be shunned, not a world that provides inspiration. It is a betrayal of the spirit of sport. A new approach is needed.
The Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act (RADA)
Introduced in the House of Representatives by Reps. Sheila Jackson-Lee (TX-18) and Dr. Michael Burgess (TX-26) and in the Senate by Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and Roger Wicker (R-MS), RADA would enable criminal doping fraud conspiracy cases to be brought in U.S. courts, provided they occur at a “major international sport competition.” This standard includes a threshold regarding both the participation of U.S. and foreign athletes as well as a requirement that organizing entities receive sponsorship from companies doing business in the United States or are compensated for the right to broadcast their competition there. The legislation would fill an important gap in the authority of U.S. law enforcement and serve as a deterrent to those considering engaging in doping fraud, while potentially providing a portal to gain visibility into a wider net of international corrupt practices, such as money laundering and bribery, that are directly connected to doping fraud.
The authority to prosecute doping fraud gives investigators and prosecutors a powerful new avenue to pursue those threatening the integrity of international sport or seeking to abuse it for power politics purposes. For example, with this authority, the recent indictment brought against Russian agents for hacking U.S. and international anti-doping agencies and athletes could have included additional indictments for doping fraud conspiracy. The extensive evidence provided by Dr. Rodchenkov could also be mined to develop further cases.
The global reaction to the FBI’s investigation of FIFA demonstrates well what to expect from the enforcement of RADA. Countries and athletes around the world hailed the investigation, with a British MP commenting, “The chickens are finally coming home to roost.” However, as to be expected, Russia and some corrupt FIFA officials protested it. There is no reason to believe it would be any different here. The fulfillment of national security goals and the generation of international goodwill, along with the protection of hard-working athletes around the world who achieve their results fairly, are reason enough to enact RADA.
The United States must quickly wake up to the corruption present in international sport and the specific threat presented by doping fraud. The problem shows no sign of stopping. Without the proper deterrents in place, foreign autocrats will continue to see the doping of their athletes and concealment of their wrongdoing to be a highly beneficial, risk-free strategy, and the United States can expect the international sport governance structure to continue to bow to autocratic pressure. With its massive sports market and rule of law tradition, the United States has a unique opportunity to clean up international sport before its corrupting influence causes additional damage in the United States. RADA is the perfect place to start.