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Anti-doping reform needs more urgency

Olympic shot-putter Adam Nelson (left) and Michael Phelps. AP Photo/Susan Walsh

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Global superstar Michael Phelps received all of his record-28 Olympic medals in real time. Shot-putter Adam Nelson labored in relative obscurity and stood on an Olympic podium once, winning a silver medal in 2004. Nine years later, he discovered he was entitled to gold.

Phelps and Nelson have a couple of important shared experiences. Neither believes he ever competed in an entirely clean field at any major international competition. Both are convinced they were held to much higher drug-testing standards than many of their rivals.

The athletes spoke their minds Tuesday in the theatrical setting of a Congressional hearing room -- a forum clearly designed to pressure the World Anti-Doping Agency and the International Olympic Committee into speeding up the pace of reform in the wake of the Russian doping scandal that laid bare its inadequacies. Efforts to make meaningful change are still entangled in investigations and grinding self-examination more than two years after the allegations first surfaced, with the next Winter Olympics a mere 11 months away in PyeongChang, South Korea.

Phelps told members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee that future generations deserve a shot at fair competition. But one of the most striking moments in his testimony was based on straightforward math: the 13 times he was tested in the months leading up to the 2016 Rio Games, compared to zero tests for 1,900 athletes in sports deemed at high risk for doping, according to the post-Rio WADA independent observers' report.

Nelson held up the gold medal he retroactively earned from 2004. He collected it at a food court in the Atlanta airport after the original winner was disqualified following a sample re-test using updated methods. The former Dartmouth football player has told the story many times, and its contrast of sublime achievement amid banal surroundings is stark. He is afraid the momentum generated by the sensational revelations of laboratory sabotage at the 2014 Sochi Games and entrenched state-sponsored doping in Russia will sputter and stall completely if left to a system he described as "interested in improving the process, but not truly committed to a better outcome.''

"Athletes have to be integrated into the solution,'' Nelson said. "We accept the burden [of testing] with open arms, but we have no input into it.''

U.S. Anti-Doping Agency CEO Travis Tygart sat in the center of the witness table, flanked by Phelps and Nelson on one side and WADA deputy director Rob Koehler and IOC medical director Dr. Richard Budgett on the other. Tygart's placement reflected political reality. He and his agency have taken an increasingly aggressive role in lobbying for WADA to emancipate itself from IOC influence and in rallying athletes to push their sports federations for change.

Tygart reiterated points he has been hammering for months, insisting that the IOC could take two significant steps immediately: Eliminating any role in WADA executive and policy-making positions and increasing its support of WADA several times over from the current $14 million. Tygart added that the IOC should prioritize "swift reallocation of medals that have been stolen'' in a nod to Nelson and a growing list of other delayed honorees.

He visibly shook his head when Koehler referred to WADA's inability to conduct investigations prior to a code revision in 2015. Tygart expressed personal respect for Budgett, a 1984 Olympic rowing gold medalist from Great Britain, and Koehler, a veteran Canadian anti-doping executive, but said they were "to some extent carrying out the instructions of their sport bosses, who are not here.''

Tygart's viewpoint appeared to have taken root with members of both parties on the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, whose questions and talking points echoed many of his themes.

Diana DeGette (D-Colorado), the ranking minority member, criticized the IOC's decision to allow most Russian athletes to compete in Rio as "a very weak message to the cheaters" and labelled a recent update "gobbledygook." "They have these unending investigations, and they're looking at angels dancing on the head of a pin,'' DeGette said, harkening back to the nearly 20-year-old Salt Lake City bid scandal as another example.

Energy and Commerce chairman Greg Walden (R-Oregon) questioned whether WADA and the IOC had sufficiently stepped up whistleblower encouragement and protection. "Clearly, people are at great risk when they do it, and they're not going to do it if they think they're just going to get blown off,'' he said. "You've got to convince us that something's really going to change here.''

"Sources matter,'' added Walden, a journalism major and former radio station owner. "But if they're ignored, they go away, and we lose out.''

Koehler maintained that WADA had done what it could over the years with limited resources and powers, and ultimately facilitated the investigations that exposed the extent of the Russian scandal.

After the hearing, Koehler said he had anticipated tough questions and understood the impatience of athletes and governmental officials. "These things take time,'' he said of the ongoing reform process. WADA, which holds its next executive meeting in May, is reviewing a stronger set of sanctions for cases of nations engaged in systemic doping while simultaneously revamping its organizational chart and financial plan. It has already implemented a new whistleblower program.

Budgett said the IOC is committed to withdrawing from WADA executive positions in the near future, but would not endorse the idea of the IOC removing itself completely from representation in the organization. He said the two commissions following up on the explosive McLaren Report that laid out evidence implicating -- but not necessarily intended as the basis for doping charges against -- as many as 1,000 Russian athletes "should be, must be'' finished by next year's PyeongChang Games.

WADA and the IOC differ on the future of testing and adjudicatory authority, and how involved national anti-doping agencies should be. Longtime IOC member Sir Craig Reedie remains president of WADA. Amid all this, the IOC faces the challenge of shoring up its brand appeal as the pool of cities willing to host the Olympics dwindles.

Russia's anti-doping agency and its track and field federation are still suspended. Doubts about how rigorously its athletes are being tested outside competition continue. The question of Russian eligibility for the 2018 Olympics and its fitness to host the 2018 FIFA World Cup will permeate the next 18 months.

Yet an overly narrow focus on Russia -- like an overly narrow focus on testing itself, an inherently imperfect tool that has to be bolstered by a strong investigative arm to be effective -- has the potential to obscure broader issues.

Athletes are at a disadvantage in pushing for change. They retire young while the bureaucrats grow old in their jobs. They're often reluctant to dwell on doping because it can be draining and distracting. "I stayed in my lane,'' Phelps said of his own career and why he didn't speak up more.

Nelson keeps recounting his convoluted medal saga not to evoke sympathy, which he called "an emotion devoid of action.'' He wants to see a greater sense of urgency in anti-doping reform -- the same urgency he felt as an athlete driven to make the most of his talent in his prime, the same urgency that creates performances people care about. There won't be much left to save without it.