US anti-doping measure turns international athletes into pawns

By: Rachel Marsden

PARIS — It’s one thing for the U.S. to sanction another country or its economic and political elites when that country threatens American interests. But now high-level amateur athletes around the world are being turned into geopolitical pawns.

Earlier this month, U.S. President Donald Trump signed into law the Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act, named after Grigory Rodchenkov, the former head of Russia’s national anti-doping laboratory who blew the whistle on a doping scheme involving Russian athletes at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. The new law allows the U.S to prosecute amateur foreign athletes for the use of performance-enhancing drugs in worldwide competitions that feature American athletes, sponsors and broadcasters. Potential penalties include up to 10 years in prison, fines of up to $1 million and the seizure of property.

Organizations such as the International Olympic Committee and the World Anti-Doping Agency have questioned why athletes competing in professional U.S. sports leagues and college sports are exempt. They’ve also pointed out that the law would make the U.S. the only jurisdiction in the world to authorize itself to investigate and sanction other countries’ athletes.

The World Anti-Doping Agency noted in a statement that “this act may lead to other nations adopting similar legislation, thereby subjecting U.S. citizens and sport bodies to similar extraterritorial jurisdictions and criminal sanctions, many of which may be political in nature or imposed to discriminate against specific nationalities.”

What’s to stop Russia or China from passing similar laws that could be used to target U.S. athletes competing in international events? Such laws could be exploited for propaganda purposes, with headline-generating announcements made at the outset of any judicial pursuits, chipping away at a rival nation-state’s national pride by using its top athletes as pawns in geopolitical warfare.

Of course, the inevitable lack of cooperation from another nation in the investigation of one of its athletes will mean that beyond the propaganda value, the new law is unlikely to amount to anything in practice.

It’s similar to what we’ve seen with U.S. Justice Department efforts to pursue alleged foreign hackers, with a sensational announcement of charges followed by a case that fizzles out. The case against Russian companies accused of running troll farms, prompted by special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into possible 2016 election interference, is one such example.

Another example of prosecution being used primarily as propaganda against another country is the U.S. prosecution of the daughter of the founder of Huawei, the Chinese multinational telecom at the forefront of global 5G technology. Meng Wanzhou, who is also Huawei’s chief financial officer, is currently in Vancouver, British Columbia, fighting extradition to the U.S. after Canadian authorities were ordered to hold her for allegedly violating U.S. sanctions against Iran in her business dealings on behalf of Huawei.

After two years of legal wrangling that has trapped Canada in a geopolitical battle between China and the U.S., there has been talk about the U.S. potentially cutting a deal for a deferred prosecution agreement that would set Meng free in exchange for an admission of guilt, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Swap out Meng for an elite athlete of a nation-state rival, and you can see exactly how the long arm of U.S. law might distort international competition. But in the case of the new law, the effort to purify international sports is being used as a pretext for such distortion.

The U.S. has sanctioned European companies for building a pipeline with Russia and doing business with Iran. Just this week, the U.S. sanctioned NATO ally Turkey for buying a surface-to-air missile system from Russia. In the fall, the U.S. sanctioned a pair of Lebanese companies for dealing with Iran-backed Hezbollah. The U.S. has sanctioned Russians for their dealings in neighboring Ukraine.

The Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act appears to be just another way for the U.S. to tilt the international playing field while claiming to protect it.