Unhappy with the Olympics? Congress could do a lot

Lawmakers have problems with sports these days. They also have power

On the eve of the Summer Games in Tokyo, members of Congress have a lot to say. (Michael Kappeler/Getty Images)
On the eve of the Summer Games in Tokyo, members of Congress have a lot to say. (Michael Kappeler/Getty Images)
Posted July 22, 2021 at 6:00am

A year delayed, the Tokyo Olympics are now upon us, and with them, a chance for Americans of all stripes to come together to celebrate that most beloved sport: politicizing the hell out of whatever’s captured the public’s attention.

The Summer Games don’t officially start until Friday (and could even be canceled at the last minute amid rising coronavirus cases, according to at least one organizing official). But that hasn’t stopped members of Congress from jumping the gun with their gripes and grandstanding.

Republican Vicky Hartzler decried the news that a transgender athlete will compete for New Zealand. Democrats Jamie Raskin and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wrote an angry letter to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency after sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson was suspended from competing over a positive test for marijuana. When hammer thrower Gwen Berry turned around as the national anthem played during a medal ceremony at the U.S. Olympic trials, Republicans like Guy Reschenthaler threw rhetorical hammers at her “woke displays.”

If they gave out medals for the hottest takes, members of Congress would no doubt sweep the podium. But it turns out they can do more than simply score political points: The legislative branch has quite a lot of power to actually do something about their problems with sports these days, even international competitions like the Olympics.

In fact, Congress passed a law just last year that made their supervisory powers over the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee faster, higher and stronger — so long as lawmakers can work together.

That statute, enacted in the wake of the rank failure of USOPC and USA Gymnastics to protect hundreds of young athletes from sexual abuse at the hands of team doctor Larry Nassar, gave Congress the ability to decertify the national governing bodies of individual sports and even dissolve the USOPC board via a joint resolution. 

Lawmakers could turn their anger into action if they thought those bodies were failing in their duties, which range from the mundane (scheduling competitions) to the momentous (protecting athletes). 

Take the case of deaf-blind swimmer Becca Meyers, who was slated to compete in the Tokyo Paralympic Games starting in August. She withdrew after the USOPC barred her from bringing her own personal care assistant, citing pandemic restrictions. 

“This is an outrage — and a preventable situation that should never have gotten to this point,” said Sen. Maggie Hassan during a hearing Tuesday, calling on the USOPC to address the issue.

In theory, if lawmakers became outraged enough, they would have recourse — they could flex their muscles and get rid of the board. 

That might seem extreme, but Congress has taken similar steps in the past. Until 1978, the Amateur Athletic Union represented the U.S. in matters of international sport. The very definition of an old boys’ club, the AAU imposed a set of maddening rules, like prohibiting women from running events.

So, Congress — itself hardly a paragon of gender equality in those days — stepped in, chartering the U.S. Olympic Committee and tasking it with setting up national governing bodies for each sport and overseeing U.S. participation in the Olympic movement. Updated in 1998, the law gave the USOPC exclusive intellectual property rights over the Olympic brand in the U.S., thus ensuring the committee’s ability to fund itself through sponsorships.

Congress’ power to impose its will on the USOPC is really just limited by politics. A group of Democrats recently reintroduced a bill to ensure male and female U.S. Olympians get the same pay, responding in large part to the dominant U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team’s campaign to earn as much as their less victorious male counterparts (Wednesday’s women’s loss to Sweden notwithstanding). But that bill has yet to attract Republican co-sponsors.

Of course, the Olympics is an international movement. The United States is just one of 205 nations competing this year, has just one seat on the International Olympic Committee executive board, and just two seats on the 102-member committee. Richardson’s suspension for weed might have been formally imposed by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency — which Congress funds — but it was merely following the World Anti-Doping Agency’s code.

But that doesn’t mean Congress is powerless on that front either. In theory, if members could agree over their outrages, America could exert its soft power to influence international bodies like the IOC and WADA.

For example, Republicans upset over China hosting the 2022 Winter Olympics have urged their Democratic colleagues to join them in pressuring the IOC. So far, none of eight GOP-sponsored bills and resolutions have attracted much support, but a bill that advanced out of the House Foreign Affairs Committee this month includes an amendment that would force Biden Cabinet members to boycott the Games.

If that bill ends up passing with the amendment still attached, they’ll accomplish something Congress’ China hawks, including Nancy Pelosi, were unable to do when George W. Bush attended the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing.

Congress has also recently exerted its will over doping matters despite WADA’s criticism. Unsatisfied with the agency’s handling of Russia’s extensive doping scheme — which led to Russia being banned from the 2020 and 2022 Olympics (though Russian athletes can still compete) and the 2022 FIFA World Cup — Congress passed a law that outlawed doping, no matter where it might happen.

While U.S. drug laws already largely forbid steroid use and USADA guidelines cover other performance-enhancing drugs, the new law contains an extraterritoriality clause. So, as long as the competition is big enough and has an American competing in it, a foreigner in a foreign country who takes a banned substance to gain an edge would violate U.S. law.

WADA opposed the act, arguing that American insouciance in the face of other nations’ sovereignty could disrupt the current international anti-doping framework and lead to political recriminations by countries — say, Russia — with bones to pick against the U.S.