Dave Johnson

Feds to international sports movement: drop dead


The U.S. Department of Justice on Tuesday flipped a big, fat middle finger to the international sports movement. On what grounds? And to achieve, exactly, what?

Did anyone at the U.S. Attorney’s office in Brooklyn stop for even a second to think about the consequence — to the Los Angeles 2024 Summer Games bid, to the possibility of an American World Cup men's soccer tourney bid for 2026, to the interests of U.S. athletes everywhere — in opening a criminal investigation into allegations of state-sponsored Russian doping?

Russian president Vladimir Putin, left, and sports minister Vitaly Mutko // Getty Images

It is very, very difficult to make even — a little law talk here — a scintilla of sense from what, at first impression, seems like nothing so much as an outrageous, politically driven abuse of prosecutorial and law enforcement discretion.

In the United States, the law does not criminalize sports doping.

Italy, just to pick one — sure. But not the United States.

Yet here come the feds, reportedly launching a criminal investigation into sports doping. By athletes who are not Americans. What?

Indeed, as the New York Times first reported, the Department of Justice, through that Brooklyn prosecutor’s office, is “scrutinizing Russian government officials, athletes, coaches, anti-doping authorities and anyone who might have benefitted unfairly from a doping regime.”

It said the investigation “originated” with the FBI.

Because there isn’t a specific doping-related statute in U.S. law, federal prosecutors are apparently eyeing fraud and conspiracy charges, the Times reported.

This is, at best, legal gymnastics.


Imagine if the Russians, or the Chinese, or the French, pick anyone anywhere, decided to go after Americans: accusing U.S. athletes or their entourage or even American government officials of a crime under that particular nation's laws, basing the whole thing on allegations of sports-related doping.

What would the reaction be?

How is this any different?

The United States is not the world’s police officer nor, hardly, its prosecutor, judge and jury.

Who in the confines of some office in Brooklyn thought otherwise would serve any sort of American interest in our complicated, nuanced world?

News of the action from that U.S. Attorney’s office came as the International Olympic Committee announced Tuesday that re-tests of samples from the 2008 Beijing Games had turned up 31 positives, IOC president Thomas Bach calling it a “powerful strike against the cheats.”

Backing up for a moment:

You have to be a complete idiot to get caught doping at the Olympic Games. Everyone knows the authorities are going to be testing. And that samples get saved for years.

So there are two options here:

One, officials finally managed to get, say, some top-level Jamaicans or Kenyans. That would be a “powerful strike.”

Two, and more likely, if this cast of 31 was a Kevin Spacey movie, it would be the usual suspects. There are roughly 10,000 athletes at a Summer Games. Catching 31 means roughly 0.3 percent. Whoo.

Let’s be clear:

In this moment, the IOC is facing a potentially unprecedented onslaught of challenges: everything from Russian doping to the seemingly chaotic preparations for the Rio Games, from allegations of potential bribery involving Tokyo’s win for 2020 to the sudden resignation of Yang Ho Cho, the one guy in South Korea who had the 2018 Winter Games ship — finally — moving in the right direction.

IOC leadership has a bully pulpit. But no. It has been notably quiet when it could and should be aggressive in pursuit of resolution to all these challenges.

But that does not mean it is up to the United States to decide unilaterally that it is an American burden, taken on willingly, to address or fix even one of these problems.

The notion of American exceptionalism — that we are different because we are us — plays well domestically.

Internationally, not so much. Indeed, in the Olympic scene, you hear time and again that the rest of the world wants way, way less American exceptionalism. To that point, senior U.S. Olympic Committee leadership has spent the past six years preaching humility, asserting that the U.S. is just one of more than 200 nations in a global movement.

Apparently that message didn’t reach Brooklyn.

The original 1975 headline // Getty Images

More recent vintage -- from January 2016 // Getty Images

In retrospect, maybe it all makes so much more sense now, the failure of that New York bid for the Summer 2012 Games. All this dropping dead.

An American civics refresher: there are 94 U.S. attorney’s offices, one for each federal district. Federal prosecutors make for one of the most powerful arms of the entire United States government.

In Brooklyn, they implausibly decided the course of action ought to be more American exceptionalism.

Like, way more. Take that, everyone. Enjoy our investigation along with your freedom fries and newly relabeled “America” beer (née Budweiser).

A little more American civics background: the planning and execution of an American bid for a mega-event such as the Games or the World Cup involves different entities that are all part of the same branch of government, the executive: the FBI and DOJ, State, Treasury and more.

The head of the executive branch is the president himself.

Left to right at the IOC session in Copenhagen in October 2009: Chicago 2016 bid chair Pat Ryan, First Lady Michelle Obama, President Obama, then-Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley // Getty Images

President Obama has been, in many regards, an extraordinary executive. If the time in which we live is not always kind to Mr. Obama, history likely will be. At the same time, he might be the worst sports president since 1776. Ever since the day in October 2009 that Chicago got the boot for the 2016 Summer Games, won by Rio, the Obama Administration’s connection with international sports has been rich with one conflict after another.

And particularly with Russia.

It was just two-plus years ago, for instance, that the president opted in advance of the Sochi Games to make a political statement regarding Russia’s anti-gay laws by naming a U.S. delegation that was to be headed by the tennis star Billie Jean King and two other openly gay athletes. (King ultimately made it to the closing ceremony; she was unable to attend the opening ceremony because of her mother’s death.)

In nearly three years as IOC president, Bach has met with more than 100 heads of state. Obama? No, and not even last October, when a good chunk of the Olympic movement’s senior leadership descended on Washington, D.C., for the meeting of the Assn. of National Olympic Committees.

At that ANOC meeting, not one ranking Obama Administration official showed up — until the fourth day. Then came a surprise appearance from Vice President Joe Biden, the protocol equivalent of a drive-by.

During his brief stay on stage, all of seven minutes, the vice president called the Olympics the “single unifying principle in the world.”

Pretty hard to mesh that with an investigation out of Brooklyn into Russian dopers.

Indeed, there’s so much wrong with the idea that American federal prosecutors are investigating the possibility of laying criminal charges in this kind of matter that it is difficult to even know where to begin.

But here we go:

— There’s no law on point.

— On what theory does the United States claim virtually unlimited, worldwide jurisdiction?

It is incredibly unclear what nexus the United States might assert here to find jurisdiction. The banking system, as in the FIFA matter? That has always been tenuous.

— Let’s play hypothetical for just a moment. Assume the case yields indictments. How in the world are you going to get defendants into the United States, particularly if they’re in Russia? Get serious.

— The Times reported that the whistleblower in another story it broke a few days ago, about alleged misconduct at the Sochi 2014 lab, the director Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, is “among the people under scrutiny by the United States government.”

Let’s see: we want to encourage whistle-blowers to step up and report what they know. Rodchenkov, fleeing to the United States, does just that — only to become a focus of potential criminal inquiry by the feds?

The Moscow lab that Rodchenkov used to head // Getty Images

It’s not hard to imagine this hypothetical: Rodchenkov applies for asylum. Such an application hinges on his “cooperation” with the DOJ, the feds in Brooklyn perhaps eager to squeeze him to be a key witness against others.

Rodchenkov already has a lawyer, the Times reported. And he said, “I have no choice. I am between two flames,” meaning the United States and Russian governments.

Also, this: Rodchenkov is living in Los Angeles. That is a long way from Brooklyn.

— Every case brought by federal prosecutors operates on two tracks: it plays out in court and, as well, in the court of public opinion. The resource of the FBI, DOJ and each U.S. Attorney is indeed significant but even that resource is finite. That means each and every prosecution has to be brought to prove a point. In essence, every single prosecution is distinguished, at some level, by notions of politics. This may not be the most popular point of view but it is indisputably true.

The Brooklyn office is the same office that is central to the FIFA case. That matter is a reach, jurisdictionally and otherwise.

This? Way more so.

And yet this is what law enforcement chooses to investigate? When surely the Eastern District of New York has more pressing issues? Like, say, shootings? Racially tinged housing issues? Antitrust matters? The list could go on and on.

— Why do U.S. taxpayers care for even a second if Russians are doping? What taxpayer interest might prosecutors be serving or protecting by going after sports dopers? None. Obviously. Otherwise Congress would have enacted a law saying something about the matter. That’s the way the American system works.

— Further:

Let’s say an American finished one position lower in x number of sports at the Games because of proven Russian doping. Would the outcome of a criminal case result in y number more medals for the United States? Or Italy? France? Mongolia? Wherever?

Take as just one of but many such examples the Olympic women’s 20-kilometer walk.

Olga Kaniskina of Russia racing at the London 2012 Games // Getty Images

Olga Kaniskina of Russia won the event in Beijing in 2008 and crossed the line second in London in 2012. In March of this year, the Swiss-based Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled Kaniskina ineligible from August 2009 until October 2012 because of anomalies in what’s called her “biological passport,” a reading of blood markers. Thus at issue: the London silver. Third place? Qieyang Shenjie of China. Fourth? Liu Hong, China. The top American finisher? Maria Michta, 29th.

The women’s 3k steeplechase from London? The first-place finisher, Yulia Zaripova of Russia, is expected to be DQ’d for doping. Second? Habib Ghribi of Tunisia. Third? Sofia Assefa, Ethiopia. Fourth? Micah Chemos Cheywa of Kenya. The top American? Emma Coburn, ninth.

London women’s discus: Russian silver medalist Darya Pishchalnikova tests positive for a steroid. Third place? Li Yanfeng of China. Fourth? Yarelys Barrios of Cuba. The best American? Stephanie Brown Trafton, the 2008 gold medalist, in eighth.

And so on.

— Is it the DOJ’s responsibility to protect Americans from watching bad sports? Hardly.

Joke: if so, maybe it should focus on the MLS.

— The DOJ has a proven record of achieving very little, if anything, after spending considerable taxpayer dollars when it comes to high-profile sports-related corruption or doping-related prosecutions.

The two figures at the center of Salt Lake City’s tainted bid for the 2002 Winter Games, Tom Welch and Dave Johnson? The case — 15 counts against each — was dropped, a federal judge saying it offended his “sense of justice,” adding, “Enough is enough.”

Roger Clemens? Acquitted of charges he obstructed and lied to Congress in denying he used performance-enhancing drugs.

Barry Bonds? Free as a big-headed bird after nearly 10 years of facing prosecution.

Barry Bonds, now the Miami Marlins batting coach, at a game earlier this month with the Milwaukee Brewers // Getty Images

Then there’s the peculiar matter involving Lance Armstrong. The U.S. Attorney’s office in Los Angeles spent nearly two years investigating allegations that Armstrong and his cycling teammates committed a variety of potential crimes via doping. A grand jury had even been convened. Then, in February 2012, the case mysteriously just — stopped. Over and done. No more.

For years, Armstrong denied doping. He said at the time the criminal case was dropped that he was “gratified,” adding, “It is the right decision and I commend them for reaching it.”

So strange, still. Eight months later, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency released more than 1,000 pages of evidence against Armstrong. Three months after that, there was Armstrong with Oprah Winfrey, purportedly confessing all.

Lance Armstrong, left, with Oprah Winfrey in January 2013 // Getty Images

The addendum: the chief prosecutor of the LA office at the time, then-U.S. Attorney André Birotte Jr., was confirmed in July 2014 as a federal judge. That's a lifetime job.

For those keeping score: the former chief prosecutor in the Brooklyn office, Loretta Lynch, is now attorney general of the United States.

Remember: politics attends virtually everything involving the U.S. attorney’s office, wherever, wherever and however.

— Finally, when did it become a key DOJ agenda item to make U.S. foreign policy?

The idea that federal prosecutors could be so narrow-minded as to not take into account the LA24 bid, or American soccer ambitions for 2026, seems like a classic case of one executive branch hand (prosecutors) not knowing what the waggling fingers on the other hand might be up to.

Or, more probably, not caring.

Simply put: this is likely to pose a huge challenge for the USOC, the LA24 committee and others in the sports movement.

The FIFA thing was already difficult enough to try to explain amid the complicated matrix that underpins any U.S. sports bid.

Beyond which, any number of IOC members are known post-9/11 to be wary of travel to the United States. No one from another country likes being treated like a potential terrorist upon arrival. Especially IOC members.

Any number of members are also cautious, if not more, when it comes to what they perceive as a Wild West-type American gun culture. Among their questions: is it really safe to go to a college campus when there are open-carry laws? What about an Olympics with so many people carrying so many guns?

Now this from Brooklyn, and what is sure to be the follow-on assertion by any number of members that they must fret about every credit-card receipt if any financial transaction credibly can provide a tie to the U.S. legal system.

If the easy answer to that is, hey, IOC members, don’t do anything wrong — sure.

The simple rejoinder: it’s the cities that have proven the much-larger problem in IOC bidding, not the members per se.

At any rate, that doesn’t answer the salient question, which is: in September, 2017, with Paris, Rome and Budapest in the field along with Los Angeles, which city is going to get a majority of IOC votes?

As a policy matter, securing an Olympic Games is a way better proposition than going after some Russians. Politically, economically, culturally and in virtually every other way: winning a Games is a better bet.

At one point, you know, even President Obama thought so. He put his prestige on the line for Chicago, his hometown. Nothing has been quite the same since.

World Fit Walk: "... really a great thing"

Rod DeHaven ran the marathon at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Now he's the track coach at South Dakota State. A few days ago, he got in his car, and drove three hours, along the two-lane road that is U.S. Highway 14, toward Pierre, the state capital, just so he could give a talk to 180 kids, ages 6 to 15, at the Pierre Indian Learning Center, an off-reservation boarding school for Native American students, about how he had come from a family of janitors and made something of himself and they could, too.

And they could start by just -- walking. That simple and yet that powerful.

"It was really a great thing," Dr. Veronica Pietz, the director of the school, said. "We've even got our little guys participating. Our teachers are participating. Everyone is participating. It's the first time we've ever done anything like this."

"This" is World Fit Walk -- an initiative pushed hard over the past four years in particular by Gary Hall Sr., the gold medal-winning swimmer from the 1970s, in response to two particular and obvious challenges:

One, speaking generally, American kids are fat.

Childhood obesity has more than tripled in the past 30 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The percentage of children aged 6 to 11 in the United States who were obese went from 7 percent in 1980 to nearly 20 percent in 2008. Over the same time frame, the percentage of adolescents -- ages 12 to 19 -- categorized as obese jumped from 5 to 18 percent, according to the CDC.

Something has to be done.

Which leads directly to the second issue.

There are, roughly, 8,000 former U.S. Olympic alumni -- or, in the parlance they prefer, Olympians, an Olympic athlete being an Olympian now and forever. Aside from those who figured out how to make a living on Olympic fame, the vast majority are pretty much living life in Hometown USA. Most would love the chance to do something as Olympians.

As Olympians, it's logical to assume they could make for an incredibly powerful interest group. Assuming they could, in the first instance, form a coherent group. Which perhaps assumes further they could find a cause around which to rally.


"The most compelling problem this country faces is childhood obesity," Hall said. "And who better than Olympians to lead a healthier life?"

World Fit Walk is a simple concept. For 40 days, kids in elementary and middle school grades walk; the program also includes teachers, families and friends. Olympians and Paralympians "adopt" a particular school. Everyone tallies their miles. The whole thing is a national competition. It generates school spirit. There are prizes galore.

The program launched in South Florida in 2009 with two schools, Hall said.

In 2010 it began expanding around the country to 17 schools; in 2011, it grew to 42.

This year's program launched last week; it will reach 78 schools and roughly 30,000 kids in 18 states, Hall said. One sponsor, Platinum Performance, a California-based dietary supplement company, is already on board; another is expected shortly, he said.

"What are experts at? We are experts at training like crazy people," said Willie Banks, the celebrated 1980s triple jumper who is president of the U.S. Olympians Assn.

"If you go in and say, 'Everyone can walk and if you can't walk, everyone can push their chair, that's exercise.' Who better to ask you to do that than an Olympian or Paralympian. That's where our sweet spot is."

An added 2012 component: a series of 20 community walks held around the United States, organized and led by Olympians and Paralympians who make up the nation's 20 Olympians Alumni chapters. The first was held last week in Los Angeles; the last will be June 23 in Washington, D.C.; the goal is to reach 5,456 miles, the distance from L.A., the 1932 and 1984 Summer Games city, to London, which played host to the Games in 1908 and 1948 and will of course be the 2012 city.

The kids in World FIt Walk are clearly going to have help make up the fictional miles across the Atlantic to get to 5,456, it's pretty clear.

No problem.

Last year, at South Gate Middle School near Los Angeles, more than 2,600 sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders took part -- believed to be the most kids of any school anywhere in the country.

Dominik Meichtry, a Swiss swimmer who is now engaged to the American swimmer Jessica Hardy, is South Gate's "adopted" Olympian. He was there last year and is due back at school next week. Already, World Fit is reaching out to Olympians from other nations, too.

"No matter what nationalities we are -- at the end of the day, we share that same bond," Meichtry said.

Patricia Alvarez, the physical education director at South Gate, said of Meichtry's 2011 appearance, "They couldn't imagine meeting an Olympian. He brought a video in where he raced against [Michael Phelps] and he beat him … the kids were overwhelmed."

She also said, "The fact that an Olympian comes to our school, and motivates our kids, really helps the kids realize that it's about the health thing everyone talks about. It's more than just their PE teacher telling them, 'You have to be healthy.' It's about their life well-being."

Dave Johnson, the U.S. decathlon star from the 1990s who won bronze at the Barcelona Games, gave a talk last week at another Native American school, the Chemawa Indian School in Salem, Ore.

He showed some of his old Dave and Dan Reebok commercials -- with 1996 decathlon gold medalist Dan O'Brien -- which, of course, the teachers remembered but not the kids. He talked, too, about how, at those 1992 Games, when he expected to win gold he ended up with a stress fracture in his left foot; he put on a shoe two sizes too big, laced it up tight, sucked it up and went out there and toughed it out for bronze.

"Usually," Johnson said, "you get 100 or 200 kids in a room like that, they're goofy. They were quiet. You could hear a pin drop."

DeHaven, halfway across the country, made the point that it surely doesn't have to be about winning a medal.

The vast majority of Olympic athletes don't. Nine of 10 athletes who march in the opening ceremony don't.

DeHaven, for instance, finished 15 minutes slower in the marathon in Sydney than he had in winning the U.S. Trials.

It doesn't matter.

"For Olympians," DeHaven said, "especially the ones who weren't medalists, which of course many of us aren't, the story I tell for anyone who will have me speak … I fell on my face. The kids in this situation -- they need to see that people who fall on their face, they need to see, look, I was able to get back up."

The kids that day at the Pierre Learning Center didn't much care that Rod DeHaven finished 69th at the 2000 Sydney Olympic marathon. They crowded around him for autographs like he was a hero.

Which he was.

He didn't ask for an appearance fee. He drove three hours there, and three hours back home through the great plains of South Dakota, to tell each and every one of those kids that they could make something of themselves, too.