Michael Phelps, Allison Schmitt Testify Before Congressional Subcommittee on Anti-Doping Measures, WADA

Michael Phelps -- Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Michael Phelps, Allison Schmitt Testify Before Congressional Subcommittee on Anti-Doping Measures, WADA

As news has emerged about 23 Chinese positive drug tests from 2021 and the subsequent nondisclosure of those results, top American swimmers and officials have spoken out against the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) for its handling of these cases. WADA accepted an explanation from the Chinese Anti-Doping Agency (CHINADA) that the 23 positives were due to food contamination, and news of the irregular results were not made public until German broadcaster ARD and the New York Times reported the news in April.

Tuesday evening, 23-time Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps added his voice to the conversation in an appearance on Capitol Hill alongside multi-time Olympian Allison Schmitt and U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) CEO Travis Tygart.

Phelps, Schmitt and Tygart appeared before the House Energy and Commerce’s Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigation with the goal of applying pressure to WADA to properly investigate and adjudicate any adverse findings. According to the New York Times, the United States provided $3.6 million to WADA this year, which exceeded the donations from any other country.


In Phelps’ prepared testimony, he explained how “the constant suspicion of doping eroded the mental strength that took a lifetime to build.” Phelps said he “witnessed firsthand the pervasive uncertainty and suspicion surrounding doping, which significantly affected my confidence and that of my fellow athletes.”

Having reliable anti-doping procedures in place, Phelps said, was the only way to give clean athletes (such as himself) the confidence necessary to compete internationally. “I testified to the necessity of an athlete being able to believe in themself to compete at such a high level and know that belief in oneself is only made possible when they believe that the system is clean and fair.”

Phelps previously testified on concerns about anti-doping procedures in 2017, and he said that he was optimistic about potential change then, but such results have not come to pass. “If I was to read my testimony from 2017, every word would still ring true,” Phelps said. “Sitting here once again, it is clear to me that any attempts of reform at WADA have fallen short, and there are still deeply rooted systemic problems that prove detrimental to the integrity of international sports and athletes right to fair competition, time and time again

Phelps concluded by noting the importance of reinstating trust in WADA as he called upon Congress to take action: “If the international sports world continues to have its integrity impacted by failures at WADA, the next generation isn’t going to be able to have the same belief in the system that I did.”

When questioned by lawmakers, Phelps said that he was tested up to 150 times per year while athletes from other countries were only tested 30 to 40 times, according to CNN.

In a statement that Schmitt read, she discussed the procedures which elite athletes follow to prove that they are clean. Schmitt told the subcommittee about how she and teammates would fill out whereabouts forms so that testers could find them at any time, about testers watching them urinate to ensure the samples were not fraudulent and about how elite athletes must ensure that every supplement and medication is free of any banned substance.

“We juggle updating the drug testers every hour of our day—all while pushing our bodies to the limit, meeting school demands, and being role models. I’ve even had a drug tester come sit next to me during a history exam in college because they show up unannounced,” Schmitt wrote.

“But I do it gladly because fair competition is worth it. This dedication only matters if everyone, including the global regulator, WADA, is equally committed. My love for swimming, my love for sport is pure. I am so grateful for the opportunities, doors it has opened, and invaluable lessons it has taught me about myself and life. I hope that one day my children will be able to experience what I did in sport — but I pray that they will have a fair playing field. That there will be standards for every country across the board.”

Schmitt also shared her experiences from the final race of her career, when she joined an American team that won silver in the 800 freestyle relay at the Tokyo Olympics. The team set an American record and finished under the previous world record while taking silver to China.

“We respected their performance and accepted our defeat. But not, learning that the Chinese relay consisted of athletes who had not served a suspension, I look back with doubt. We may never know the truth and that may haunt many of us for years,” Schmitt said.

WADA’s Response

WADA President Witold Bańka was invited to the hearing but declined to attend, and the organization put out a statement criticizing the hearing for politicizing the controversy regarding the 23 positive results from 2021. The statement claimed that WADA has been transparent regarding the positive tests and defended Bańka’s absence from the proceedings. “WADA considers it inappropriate to be pulled into a political debate before a U.S. congressional committee regarding a case from a different country, especially while an independent review into WADA’s handling of the case is ongoing.”

A quote from Bańka puts blame on Congress and the speakers at the hearing for sowing further distrust in anti-doping authorities. That marks a sharp contrast from the words of Phelps, Schmitt and other swimmers that have blamed WADA for covering up the 2021 violation and others.

“As WADA expected, today’s congressional hearing focused on pushing out more misinformation regarding the contamination case from 2021 involving 23 swimmers from China, and causing further damage to WADA’s reputation and that of the global anti-doping system,” Bańka said. “Unfortunately, there persists a narrative from some in the U.S. suggesting that WADA somehow acted inappropriately or showed bias towards China, despite there being no evidence to support that theory.

“It is clear from this narrative and from the intervention of a committee within the U.S. federal government, on the eve of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, that these cases of contamination from 2021 are a hot political issue. WADA understands the tense relationship that exists between the governments of China and U.S. and has no mandate to be part of that.

“It is not appropriate for anti-doping to be politicized in this way. All it does is weaken confidence in the system, which ultimately does not benefit athletes from the U.S. or anywhere else. WADA always endeavors to protect clean sport and treat athletes fairly, regardless of where in the world they are from.”

Congressional Leaders Consider Next Steps

While the 118th Congress has been heavily split among partisan lines, both Republican and Democratic representatives expressed support for Phelps and Schmitt’s testimony while considering action against WADA and blasting the organization’s refusal to send a representative to appear in Washington, according to CNN.

“Their refusal to appear today calls into question their commitment to accountability. If they’re not going to do the job, we shouldn’t even fund them,” said subcommittee chairman Morgan Griffith, a Republican from Virginia, per CNN. Griffith further discussed reducing U.S. governmental contributions to WADA.

Florida’s Kathy Castor, the committee’s top Democrat, suggested misconduct on the part of WADA and potential favoritism toward Chinese athletes because of illicit payments from the country’s government to WADA. Castor identified several key points that have bothered figures within the swimming community and wider sports community since the 23 violations from 2021 were reported in April.

“Why did WADA accept CHINADA’s conclusions? Why did WADA keep the violations secret? Why were Chinese athletes treated differently than athletes from other countries? Why were the Chinese swimmers not provisionally suspended?” Castor told CNN. “Did reported payments from the (People’s Republic of China) to WADA influence WADA’s decision-making? These unanswered questions are why I’m especially disappointed that WADA refused the committee’s invitation to testify today.”

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