David Owen

Having come down like a ton of bricks - to spectacular effect - on international football, United States lawmakers are now training their sights on doping.

The so-called Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act runs to just 10 pages. Yet, seen from a European perspective, it is on the face of it a pretty breathtaking document.

It seeks to establish criminal penalties, including prison sentences of up to 10 years in cases of conspiracy, for perpetrators of "doping fraud violations" at what it calls "major international competitions".

These are defined as contests, including "a series of bilateral games", in which athletes representing at least three non-US countries are contestants, and either four or more US athletes are also competing or two or more US companies are sponsors.

The instrument also seeks to establish civil remedies for those deemed injured by perpetrators of doping fraud, defined as “use of any performance-enhancing drug to gain an unfair competitive advantage in sports”.

The statute of limitations would be set at seven years for criminal penalties and 10 years for civil actions.

US jurisdiction would be considered applicable wherever the major international competition takes place or indeed if the offence "affects the interstate or foreign commerce of the United States".

Given the high-profile recent indictments and extraditions of former international football officials, and the recourse to ex-Moscow lab director Grigory Rodchenkov’s name in its title, the Bill inevitably attracted widespread attention after its introduction in the House of Representatives last week.

The Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act was introduced at the House of Representatives in Washington D.C. last week ©Getty Images
The Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act was introduced at the House of Representatives in Washington D.C. last week ©Getty Images

But it raises all manner of questions, not least of which is whether such unilateral action by a nation rarely shy about asserting extraterritorial jurisdiction when it perceives its interests are threatened would strengthen or, on the contrary, undermine the multilateral framework of the global anti-doping effort that has been bolted together over the past couple of decades?

It is interesting that when defining what a performance-enhancing drug is, the Bill alludes not to the list of prohibited methods and substances drawn up by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), but rather "any substance…to be specified by the Secretary of Health and Human Services on the basis of scientific and international sports standards".

Of three mentions of WADA in the text of the instrument, indeed, one asserts that the body lacks "the tools to effectively deter" state-sponsored doping systems, while another points out that the US is the body’s single largest sovereign contributor "and thus doping fraud in major international competitions also effectively defrauds the United States".

Other questions include:

Given the extended statute of limitations, could those already sanctioned for doping offences at London 2012 be targeted by civil actions if the bill were swiftly enacted? And how about Sochi 2014?

Would contestants in US domestic competitions be subject to the same regime? After all, it would seem odd, would it not, if two individuals judged to have committed identical offences were subject to different potential sanctions dependent on whether the transgression occurred at an event defined as a major international competition or not?

Is there a risk of unintended consequences? Might some be tempted to sidestep the jurisdiction claimed by the bill by, for example, inviting fewer than four US athletes to events, or restricting themselves to one US sponsor, or even, in the case of cheats and their entourages, by confining themselves to performance-enhancing drugs not on the Secretary of Health and Human Services’ list?

With the US now known to be hosting two out-and-out mega-events – the 2026 FIFA World Cup and the 2028 Olympics and Paralympics – in the next 10 years, as well as the 2021 International Association of Athletics Federations World Championships, might there be absentees if the Rodchenkov Act reaches the statute book?

The civil remedies-related clauses in the Bill stipulate an entitlement to "threefold the damages sustained" for contestants cheated out of a prize or a top-three finish. Would the instrument therefore, in effect, put a price on an Olympic medal?

The Bill is named after Russian whistleblower Grigory Rodchenkov ©CBS
The Bill is named after Russian whistleblower Grigory Rodchenkov ©CBS

For now, perhaps the most fundamental question of all is this one: Does the Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act stand much of a chance of becoming law in anything like its present form?

After all, if this were a UK Private Member’s Bill, it would have to surmount a string of Parliamentary hurdles any one of which might trip it up.

Having tried to sound out knowledgeable opinion on this, the consensus seems to be that the measure does indeed have quite a gauntlet to run.

It is not, though, without influential backers.

This is what United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) chief executive Travis Tygart has to say on the matter:

"Four years ago, this would not have seen the light of day, but circumstances have dramatically changed since Russian state doping that robbed clean athletes, sponsors and the viewing public of the purity of sport was exposed.

"Coupled with the IOC’s failure to hold the Russians accountable, this measure could be key to ensuring sport fulfils its promise to fair competition going forward."

My own view is that the proposed measure is provocative and therefore possibly counterproductive, and that, as in other spheres, a multilateral approach is much to be preferred.

Arguably the biggest problem for anti-doping remains securing the money to finance a truly robust global testing and detection effort.

This Bill would do nothing to help address that.

Backers of the Bill would argue, no doubt, that stiffer penalties would act as a deterrent.

Allegations of state-sponsored doping in Russia have made the subject of drugs in sport a major issue in the United States and attracted the attention of politicians ©CNN
Allegations of state-sponsored doping in Russia have made the subject of drugs in sport a major issue in the United States and attracted the attention of politicians ©CNN

The current wording states that "criminal proscriptions are necessary to deter doping fraud, even when such conduct occurs outside United States territory".

If that argument is to be used to justify the Bill’s passage, however, the onus must be on its supporters to produce evidence showing that said "criminal proscriptions" would have the desired deterrent effect.

The Bill’s significance, I think, lies most of all in the message it transmits to sports leaders and the growing band of anti-doping professionals to the effect that the patience of those outside the bubble, in particular Governments and elected representatives, is starting to run out.

It is not just the US and it is not just the Russian issue: criminal sanctions for doping fraud are becoming more widespread.

If the anti-doping community cannot soon produce clear and convincing evidence that they are starting to bring the worldwide scourge of doping under some semblance of control, the Governments which help to fund the system seem increasingly minded to take matters into their own hands.

Were it not for their reluctance to funnel more taxpayers’ cash into the struggle, indeed, sport’s autonomy in this key area might already have been reined in much more substantially than has so far happened.

At root, the Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act is a further sign that the pressure is mounting and that this is the direction in which we may be heading.