WASHINGTON — Michael Phelps has been confirmed as a witness in a congressional hearing that will examine the international anti-doping system ahead of the 2018 Olympics in PyeongChang.
A congressional subcommittee dedicated to investigations and oversight in the House of Representatives will moderate the hearing. The full committee, the Energy & Commerce Committee, holds jurisdiction in Congress over sports.
“The Olympic Games represent the greatest athletes in the world, and we want to preserve the integrity of competition, and ensure clean sport,” said Rep. Tim Murphy (R-PA), the chairman of the subcommittee. “This will be an important discussion to protect the revered distinction both the Olympics Games and their world-class athletes hold.”
The hearing, slated for Feb. 28, will ask confirmed witnesses about the challenges that the anti-doping system faces and how it can be improved. Phelps is the most decorated Olympian in history. Olympic gold medalist shot-putter Adam Nelson is also confirmed.
Phelps and Nelson have had different run-ins with the doping world. Nelson was awarded a gold medal nine years after the 2004 Athens Olympics when the original winner tested positive for doping.
Phelps’ name was mentioned by substance abuser Yulia Efimova when the Russian swimmer shielded herself from attacks by the likes of American swimmer Lily King. She said, “What would King say to Michael Phelps?”
Statements like Efimova’s piqued the interest of Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-VA), the vice-chair of the subcommittee and a lifelong avid and competitive swimmer. Having Phelps as a confirmed witness could shed light on what Americans faced in the water in Rio.
Phelps may also be able to share what American Olympians experienced in their public scuffles with Russian Olympians.
“Michael Phelps brings that perspective of an athlete, even though it wasn’t someone he was competing against, who wants to see his sport stay clean,” Griffith told SB Nation referring to Efimova. “So when you see a miraculous swim in his case or in the case of some of the women athletes that we had this summer competing, you know that’s pure effort, pure effort, and good stuff.”
Other confirmed witnesses include: Travis Tygart, the chief executive officer of the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA); Rob Koehler, the deputy director general of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA); and Dr. Richard Budgett, the medical and scientific director of the International Olympic Committee (IOC).
Officials considered banning Russia before the Rio Olympics after discovering the nation’s doping scheme before the 2014 Sochi Olympics in Russia. At the time, Congress sent a letter to the IOC expressing worry that international sports weren’t clean. A Senate subcommittee also sent a letter to WADA, the largest global watchdog and regulator of drugs in sports, for its lack of speed dealing with Russia’s cheating.
The Russian doping scandal convinced some members, who will lead the hearing, to advocate for more federal assistance to organizations like WADA.
"We have reached a point in international sports where authorities such as WADA may need better tools to ensure a level playing field,” Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO), the subcommittee’s ranking member, told SB Nation. “This hearing and others like it, plus any follow-up action, should help ensure that what happened in the Russian athletics program is never repeated.
“It is in everyone's interest to honor the spirit of fair competition and ensure that the Olympic motto doesn't become 'Faster, Higher, Stronger, Cheater.’”
The ranking member of the Energy and Commerce committee, Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ), echoed DeGette, telling SB Nation that WADA may need additional resources and improved monitoring systems to ensure that the agency has the tools to investigate violators and punish them appropriately.
To combat systemic doping efforts, like those that have surfaced in Russia, Pallone said it’s important to hear from the athletes and experts confirmed for the hearing.
“Doping in the world of sport undermines the integrity of competition,” Pallone said. “WADA’s independent investigation of the Russian program is truly troubling and raises questions about how to improve the anti-doping system and sanction cheaters.”
The United States contributes approximately $2 million per year to WADA, which uses funding from world governments and Olympic committees to function. But the funding given to these agencies, like WADA, isn’t enough, according to some members of the committee.
Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-NY), a member of the subcommittee holding the hearing, told SB Nation that doping often has collateral consequences, too.
“Despite its short-term enhancement of performance, doping ultimately results in long-term damage to health,” Clarke said. “I am prepared to work with my colleagues in Congress and the international community to end doping at the Olympics and other sanctioned athletic contests.”
The hearing is a bipartisan push to clean up doping that shows a surprising lack of political division that often plagues Congress. Griffith, the Virginian vice-chair, wanted to make sure of that.
The people coming to break bread at a hearing about anti-doping policy are allowed to have a wide variance of political viewpoints, he said. The athletes coming certainly do. And this, he insisted, was all about America’s athletes.
“This is not about Democrats and Republicans. This is about making sure that we have a clean athletic system for our country and to make sure our athletes are treated fairly,” Griffith said. “It’s good that we make sure we have a clean system and we look to see what we, as Congress, can do to assure (that).”