WASHINGTON – As retired Olympic shot putter Adam Nelson told his story, fellow Olympian and retired swimmer Michael Phelps’ eyes filled with tears.
“So unfair. So, so unfair,” Phelps said Tuesday in front of a House subcommittee.
Nelson won the silver medal in the 2004 Olympic Games, but nearly a decade later was awarded the gold after an investigation discovered that the original winner of the shot put had been taking illegal performance-enhancing drugs. Nelson’s Olympic gold medal was delivered to him not in front of cheering crowds but in an Atlanta airport food court in 2013.
“Eight years of my life had been based on a falsehood,” Nelson said.
Doping remains a scourge of international athletic competition, including the Olympics, Phelps told the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s oversight and investigations subcommittee.
“I don’t think I’ve ever stood up in international competition, and the rest of the field has been clean,” the most decorated Olympian said. “I’ve never felt that.”
Phelps, who was awarded 28 medals (23 of them gold) in Olympic competition, said that there is no greater feeling than standing on the podium and listening to the national anthem while watching the American flag rise. Phelps said later that Nelson had been deprived of that moment because another athlete had decided not to compete cleanly.
Phelps and Nelson urged Congress to help ensure the integrity of international competitions by tightening anti-doping measures.
The pair testified alongside Travis Tygart, CEO of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency; Dr. Richard Budgett, International Olympic Committee’s medical and scientific director; and Rob Koehler, World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA) deputy director general. The hearing focused on ways to improve and amend anti-doping efforts and systems in international sports.
“Honestly, we’re now at a point where it needs to be talked about,” Phelps said. “I think there’s just so much that has happened over the last couple of years that this needs to be addressed.”
At last summer’s Rio games, 1,913 athletes out of the 11,000 were not tested for doping before competing, according to Tygart. By contrast, Phelps was drug tested 13 times before the start of the Rio Olympics.
The main focus of the hearing was on Russia and its athletes participating in the 2016 summer games “despite not having been subject to credible anti-doping programs,” Tygart said.
Between at least 2011 to 2015, spreading across more than 30 sports, more than 1,000 Russian athletes have been implicated in a doping schemes orchestrated and supported by officials in Russia, Tygart said.
“I have no clue why someone would do it,” Phelps said. “It is shocking that over 1900 athletes weren’t tested before the last (Olympic) games.”
Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., said that the drama surrounding the Russian doping scandal “felt like more of a movie script than reality.”
No federal legislation has been proposed yet, but lawmakers appeared to agree that the international doping problem needed additional action.
Budgett told the panel that new anti-doping initiatives by the International Olympic Committee “should finish on-time by the PyeongChang Games (in South Korea in 2018). They must finish on time.”
“As an independent anti-doping organization, we view these athletes – and their powerful stories – as our guiding light, our North Star,” Tygart said. “Their stories give us hope, they remind us of our purpose, and they provide us the fuel to continue to fight for their right to clean and fair competition.”