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Why Is Congress Wasting Its Time on Anti-Doping Issues in Sports?

On Tuesday, Congress's Oversight and Investigations subcommittee will hold a hearing regarding anti-doping in sports. But with little ability to make changes to the system, it's not exactly clear what they hope to accomplish.
Image via flickr user K3nna

On Tuesday, the Congressional House Committee on Energy and Commerce will hold a hearing on improving anti-doping testing, with a focus on the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). According to a briefing, the hearing will cover the challenges facing anti-doping and "how to better facilitate efforts to guarantee clean competition and restore public confidence in international sports." It will also feature witness testimony from the CEO of the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) Travis Tygart, the deputy director general of WADA, the medical and scientific director of the International Olympic Committee, Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, and Olympic shot-putter Adam Nelson.


Regardless of what happens at the hearing, the bigger question should be: Why is a U.S. Congressional subcommittee spending any time at all on a matter almost entirely outside its power?

Read More: The Drugs Won: The Case for Ending the Sports War on Doping

It's true that the U.S. government partially funds WADA with a $2 million stipend, but let's put that figure in perspective. It's only 6.6 percent of WADA's budget. It is the same amount Congress spent in 2012 on coffee and pastries for events held on Capitol Hill. It is the same amount of money the Department of Agriculture spent on an internship program that hired one intern. It is the amount it would have cost the Department of Defense to demolish an empty, unused building in Afghanistan that cost ten times that much to build. Would the subcommittee hold a day of hearings on any of those $2 million issues?

No, because they would point out that they have much more important things to do. Specifically, the subcommittee running the hearing, the Oversight and Investigations subcommittee, has the "responsibility for oversight of agencies, departments, and programs" within the Energy and Commerce sectors. This includes things like:

  • Digital commerce, consumer protection, communications, and technology, including issues like net neutrality and cybersecurity
  • Energy
  • Environment
  • Health, which includes government-funded health care like the Affordable Care Act, Medicaid, and Medicare, as well as any pressing public health concerns like the fentanyl and heroin epidemics


While doping is an important issue within sports, it barely scratches the surface of issues the federal government should be concerned about, especially the current federal government.

Doping is not a public health issue. For example, after Texas passed a law requiring steroid testing in high schools, it conducted 35,000 tests and found just 15 positives. Nor is it a concern regarding government waste. In addition to that $2 million to WADA, the federal government also gives USADA about $9 million a year, but $11 million is nothing in comparison to, say, the internal report the Pentagon buried that had found $125 billion (with a B) in bureaucratic waste.

It's also not clear what involvement the federal government has with the Russian doping scandal or what they could do about it. Their only real option is to stop giving WADA $2 million, which they could certainly do. But that wouldn't make anything better. WADA will always prioritize the IOC's wishes over those of any individual government, since the IOC accounts for half of WADA's funding, and its president, Craig Reedie, is also an IOC member.

The other option is the government could, in theory, fund WADA even more so they can do a better job, but that has its own feasibility issues. First, WADA's funding arrangement is the result of an international agreement. It's not clear any country could simply write WADA a bigger check (not that anyone's ever tried).


When you hear that Michael Phelps was invited to a Congressional hearing about anti-doping. Photo via WikiMedia Commons.

Second, even if the U.S. did want to explore that option, we'd be talking about an additional hundreds of millions of dollars a year. Don Catlin, who ran the UCLA testing lab from 1984 until 2007, estimated it would take as much as $400 million annually to run an effective testing program.

Third, it's not clear more funding would have prevented the Russian doping scandal to begin with.

And fourth, this wouldn't solve WADA's dependence issues. More U.S. involvement on such a scale would merely change the proper noun, not the problem.

If Congress really wanted to address a public health issue with performance-enhancing relevance, they could reconsider the free reign the supplements industry has to put whatever they want into their products. Currently, legislation supported by Republican Senator Orrin Hatch bars the FDA from making sure the companies that manufacture supplements aren't lying to consumers about what's in their products or whether they actually have the effects they claim. People have no idea what they're putting into their bodies or whether it works. Thanks to this lack of oversight, athletes regularly test positive due to "tainted supplements" for which they have little legal recourse.

Perhaps all this is taking the hearing too seriously. Most likely, this whole thing is just an empty political stunt. After all, Congress invited Phelps, someone who has no particular expertise or knowledge on doping or WADA. He will surely be commended for representing America honorably while some of his competitors took the easy way. So, too, is the WADA official there to get lambasted and told very sternly that he isn't "doing enough." There may even be a finger wag or two, which will play great if caught on camera from the right angle. Which it will be. There will be tons of cameras. Did you hear that Michael Phelps will be there?

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