Any thought that the U.S. and World Anti-Doping Agency are smoothing out their differences was undermined Thursday when a U.S. representative characterized a WADA proposal to penalize nations for not paying their dues as "a direct personal attack on the U.S. government."
That rejoinder from the U.S. drug control office's acting general counsel, Anthony Jones, summed up about an hour's worth of arguing over America's increasingly aggressive stance against WADA. The U.S. drug control office has criticized the global drug-fighting agency on a number of fronts, including its handling of the Russian doping scandal and its efforts to recalibrate an anti-doping bill that could pass Congress as soon as this month.
"If you want to keep going down this road, that will be a factor the U.S. considers in future relationships with WADA," Jones said.
Jones' threat came not long after WADA president Witold Banks described a "friendly and productive" meeting with drug czar James Carroll last Friday.
But the issues that have divided the parties all year appeared to be far from solved during WADA's board meeting, which was held online because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
WADA insisted that a recent proposal to consider penalizing countries for not paying dues had nothing to do with the U.S. threat to do exactly that as part of the drug office's June report to Congress that criticized WADA's performance.
WADA's annual budget of $37.4 million is funded half by governments across the world and half by the International Olympic Committee. The U.S. gave $2.7 million to WADA this year, making it among the biggest single contributors to the Montreal-based organization.
"I think it's an absurd proposition or a massive coincidence of timing to say it's not related to the U.S. situation," said New Zealand's government rep, Clayton Cosgrove.
Underlying this debate is the anticipated passage of the Rodchenkov Act, an anti-doping law that would greatly strengthen U.S. law enforcement's ability to criminalize international doping conspiracies.
WADA has argued that parts of it will undermine global anti-doping rules and give the U.S. an outsize role in prosecuting cases.
Supporters of the bill say it will put more teeth into anti-doping enforcement, and also criticize WADA for using money it receives from governments to lobby against laws those governments propose. Cosgrove cited a $400,000 item in the WADA budget labeled "government relations support," the bulk of which is targeted toward working with U.S. lawmakers.
"There's a broad bipartisan consensus in the U.S. that more reforms are needed" in the anti-doping world, Jones said. "Our representatives don't agree on much these days, but they all agree that the Russian doping scandal and WADA's handling of it undermined confidence in the global anti-doping system."
The bill passed the House by a unanimous voice vote, and the same is expected in the Senate. WADA director general Olivier Niggli agreed that fighting for changes could be a lost cause.
"But it's our job to make sure our concerns are being voiced," Niggli said. "Whether they're being heard or not, that's another question."
Jones left little doubt that they are, in fact, being heard.
"WADA says its goal is to have a better relationship with the U.S. government," he said. "Continued opposition to the Rodchenkov Act is likely to harm that relationship."