WASHINGTON – Supporters of a bill that would make international sports doping a crime argued Wednesday that the legislation would deter scandals like Russian state-sponsored drug use at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
Yulia Stepanova, a Russian former track athlete who became a whistleblower about the drug program, said at a congressional hearing that ending doping in her country would have to “start from the top” – with Russian President Vladimir Putin himself.
The bill was named for Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, the Russian lab director who exposed the cheating in Sochi. Rodchenkov has said the doping stemmed from Putin’s command to his sports ministry to “win at any cost.”
Several European countries have passed similar legislation. The bill being considered in the House is stronger because it would allow the United States to police doping that occurs outside its borders. U.S. and foreign athletes would be subject to the law if competing in an event that includes four or more U.S. athletes and athletes from three or more countries.
The bill has bipartisan support but has yet to be introduced in the Senate, and its prospects for approval are unclear.
The hearing occurred while, in the same Senate office building, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was questioned by lawmakers who accused President Donald Trump of being too soft on Putin. While the president has made conflicting claims about the extent of Russian interference in the 2016 election, the hearing on doping turned attention back to other ways in which Putin’s actions have brought scorn from the international community.
In written testimony, Rodchenkov and Stepanova said that those who participated in the doping program were essentially following orders, fearing that to refuse or speak out would mean the end of their careers, or possibly even lead to their deaths.
“You will lose your job, your career and even fear for the safety of you and your family,” Stepanova said. “You will be called a liar and a traitor if you stand up against the system that unfortunately still exists in Russia today.”
Asked by Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas how to end Russian doping, Stepanova said, “It should start from the top because if it started from the top, they … would stop doping.”
“If Mr. Putin had a different attitude and expressed that, it would stop?” Jackson Lee asked.
“Yes, I think so,” Stepanova said.
Rodchenkov did not attend the hearing, but his attorney, Jim Walden, said he and his client believe Putin needs to be held accountable.
“There are some in our government who refuse to confront Russia for its abject criminality,” Walden said. “Doping fraud is one more example of the gangster state that Vladimir Putin has created in Russia.”
The hearing also featured emotional testimony from Katie Uhlaender, who finished fourth in skeleton – by four hundredths of a second – in Sochi to Elena Nikitina of Russia. Nikitina’s bronze medal was later stripped for suspected doping before the Court of Arbitration for Sport restored it on the eve of the Pyeongchang Olympics. Uhlaender feels that she was unfairly denied a medal twice, although it’s still possible she could prevail on appeal.
“My moment was stolen,” Uhlaender said through tears. “A line was crossed. It erased the meaning of sport and the Olympics as I knew it.”
Travis Tygart, CEO of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, said he would continue trying to persuade Congress to address international doping and called on the corporations that sponsor the Olympics to join the effort.
“If the governments of the world aren’t going to step up and do something about it, where are the corporations? They’re profiting off the backs of these athletes,” Tygart said. “I think it all it would take would be a couple phone calls from them to get this situation fixed and cleaned up. But where are they? They’re sitting there counting the money.”
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