Michael Phelps rips World Anti-Doping Agency for inconsistent enforcement of rules: ‘We need to hold them responsible’

Legendary Olympian Michael Phelps on Tuesday ripped the World Anti-Doping Agency and described an inconsistent application of anti-doping rules that is driving frustration among clean athletes and concerns over the future of fair competition.

In testimony before the House Energy and Commerce’s Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigation, Phelps and fellow former Olympic swimmer Allison Schmitt described the lengths they went to in order to prove they were competing fairly. But those rules are not being applied equally, they said, pointing specifically at Russia and China as among the nations whose athletes are allowed to skirt strict anti-doping measures.

“We need to hold them responsible,” Phelps said of WADA, adding that the agency should “almost be on a separate island by themselves” in terms of how the world’s leading anti-doping authority should be treated.

The hearing focused on an investigation over alleged doping by almost two dozen Chinese swimmers that is playing out ahead of the 2024 Paris Olympics. The Chinese swimmers tested positive for trimetazidine, a banned performance-enhancing substance, several months before the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, where they went on to win medals, according to a report from The New York Times released in coordination with German public broadcaster ARD.

Phelps argued WADA’s handling of the case – which is under an independent review – showed the agency’s reforms have “fallen short.” He asked Congress “to use its considerable leverage with WADA to make the organization independent and effective.”

“It can’t reasonably be a coincidence that (WADA) has yet again succumbed to the pressures of international sport,” Phelps said. “Close friends were potentially impacted by (WADA’s) failure to follow its own rules in investigating the nearly two dozen positive tests on Chinese swimmers. Many of them will live with the ‘what ifs’ for the rest of their lives.

“As athletes, our faith can no longer be blindly placed in the World Anti-Doping Agency, an organization that continues to proves that it is either incapable or unwilling to enforce its policies consistently around the world.

The athletes described inconsistencies in WADA’s testing and the application of anti-doping rules across nations and competitions. Both Phelps and Schmitt said the process was worth signing up for – including being required to urinate in front of anti-doping officials to prove the sample they were giving was their own – because it would ensure clean competition.

But that pressure to comply with the rules wasn’t applied equally, the athletes said. Phelps said in one year he was tested 150 times for performance-enhancing drugs, while other Olympic delegations were tested only 30 or 40 times across all their athletes.

“If I can control myself and be the best version of myself, that should be enough. And I think people are doing that now and people are cheating, and that needs to change,” Phelps said. “So, I think that’s why we’re here today, to fight for that change for the next generation.”

WADA under the microscope over China tests

The hearing is the latest action from lawmakers, who have called for the Department of Justice and the International Olympic Committee to investigate how WADA and the Chinese Anti-Doping Agency handled the positive tests.

US Anti-Doping Agency CEO Travis Tygart also testified. Tygart has accused WADA and CHINADA of covering up the positive tests, which occurred seven months before the Tokyo Games in 2021, and of leaving other athletes in the dark.

CHINADA has said the 23 athletes tested positive for an “extremely low concentration” of trimetazidine at a national swimming competition in 2021. Trimetazidine has the potential to boost endurance and has been banned by WADA since 2014. The agency decided the swimmers were not responsible for the results because they were inadvertently exposed to the drug. WADA was notified of the positive tests in June 2021, roughly a month before the Tokyo Games kicked off.

In a news conference earlier this year, WADA President Witold Bańka said the agency “followed all due processes and diligently investigated every lead and line of enquiry in this matter” and found “no evidence of wrongdoing … and no credible way to disprove the contamination theory that was accepted by CHINADA.”

WADA has launched an independent review into its handling of the tests, and Bańka was invited to testify at the Tuesday hearing as well. He declined to testify, according to a committee spokesperson. CHINADA has argued media reports about the situations are misleading.

In a statement, WADA acknowledged the hearing and said it decided against sending a representative because “the relevant organizations with responsibility for the anti-doping during the Olympic Games were not invited to the hearing.” The statement alleged that the hearing was more about geopolitics than it was about doping and that it was not appropriate for WADA to wade into the fray.

Bańka said the hearing pushed out misinformation regarding the alleged Chinese doping scandal and denied showing bias toward China.

“WADA understands the tense relationship that exists between the governments of China and U.S. and has no mandate to be part of that,” Bańka said. “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.”

Lawmakers float withholding US taxpayer money from WADA

Lawmakers at the hearing – including the chairman of the subcommittee, Republican Rep. Morgan Griffith of Virginia – raised the prospect of withholding US taxpayer funding from WADA if things don’t improve. The US provides about $4 million annually to the agency, Griffith said.

“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,” he said.

Tygart slammed WADA’s handling of the case and China’s influence on the agency. He said 11 of the 23 swimmers who tested positive in 2021 are going to compete in next month’s Games in Paris.

Tygart said he’s concerned about a cozy relationship between WADA and the Chinese government, including that WADA decided to close an investigation into allegations of “systemic doping in China.”

“It’s the fox guarding the henhouse. When you have sport leaders who have an interest in the decision that they’re making, that can’t be an independent decision,” he said.

The top Democrat on the subcommittee, Rep. Kathy Castor of Florida, said Banka’s refusal to appear at the hearing left critical questions unanswered.

“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? … Did reported payments from the (People’s Republic of China) to WADA influence WADA’s decision-making?” she asked. “These unanswered questions are why I’m especially disappointed that WADA refused the committee’s invitation to testify today.”

Tygart wants Congress to condition US funding for WADA on the group setting up an independent committee of experts that will make rulings on positive tests that don’t result in a rule violation, alleging that those decisions are made in secret. He also wants an audit of WADA to assess how it is complying with its own rules and responsibilities.

Frustration and disappointment among athletes with WADA

Schmitt was candid about what it meant to her to lose to a Chinese relay team that would later come under suspicion.

“We raced hard. We followed every protocol and accepted our defeat with grace. Three years later, news surfaced that some Chinese athletes on that team were not subjected to the same anti-doping rules, casting doubt on the fairness of the competition. With these revelations, many of us will be haunted by this podium finish that may have been impacted by doping,” she said.

Former Olympians Michael Phelps, left, and Allison Schmitt, right, and US Anti-Doping Agency CEO Travis Tygart testify on Capitol Hill on June 25, 2024. - Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images
Former Olympians Michael Phelps, left, and Allison Schmitt, right, and US Anti-Doping Agency CEO Travis Tygart testify on Capitol Hill on June 25, 2024. - Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

She also detailed the effects the scandal has had on athletes preparing for next month’s Games, saying, “As recently as last week at the US swimming Olympic trials, I witnessed the frustration and disappointment of young athletes whose confidence in the anti-doping system has been shattered. They deserve better. They deserve a level playing field where success is determined by talent, hard work and dedication – not by banned substances.”

Phelps told the lawmakers that the process is more proof that WADA does not enforce its rules equally across nations. He expressed disappointment that he is once again testifying to Congress about WADA’s shortcomings, having appeared in front of the same committee in 2017.

“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 said.

This story and its headline have been updated with additional developments.

CORRECTION: This story’s headline has been updated to correct a quote.

CNN’s Amy Woodyatt, George Ramsay and Haley Talbot contributed to this report.

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