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The Powers That Be

After decades of exporting athletic prowess, the U.S. is using its legal might to make friends and influence people around the globe
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SUBSCRIBERS TO the idea of soft power believe that a country can extend its influence by deploying culture and values, not just money and military might. And sports have their place, as Harvard government professor Joseph Nye put it when he introduced the concept of soft power a quarter century ago, in a nation's efforts to induce others "to want what you want" rather than coerce them "to do what you want."

The Olympics and the World Cup have long served as currency for soft power. With well-orchestrated Games in Beijing in 2008, China rebranded itself as a country in from the cold. Qatar will try to showcase a hospitable and inclusive Arab society when it hosts the World Cup in 2022. Nye regards an opening ceremony as a host country's greatest marketing opportunity, but competitive exploits count too: Monocle magazine's Soft-Power Survey, which currently ranks 2014 World Cup winner Germany as No. 1, factors Olympic medals into its scores. China vindicated its ambitious goal for medals known as Project 119 by winning 51 of the 119 golds it targeted in 2008. And four years after finishing a humiliating sixth in the medal standings at the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, Russia topped the field at its own Sochi Olympics with 33.

But here's the hard truth about soft power: It's most effective when exercised on a foundation of legitimacy. And right now international sports mega-events and the institutions that govern them are leaking credibility and soft-power wattage.

Russia sits at the center of the crisis. Last year the World Anti-Doping Agency charged the Russians with orchestrating a state-sponsored doping regime for its track and field athletes; consequently, the IAAF has suspended Russia's track federation pending the findings of an investigation and will decide next month whether to ban Russian track athletes from the Rio Olympics. This month two insiders—an ex-employee of the Russian Anti-Doping Agency and the former director of the Sochi drug-testing lab—claimed that Russia was cheating. The lab director asserted that even as Vladimir Putin welcomed the world, the Russian FSB, an internal security agency, was substituting clean urine for the samples from elite Russian athletes. Meanwhile the IOC announced that it will soon reveal the names of the 31 athletes (from six sports and 12 countries) who have come up positive on retested urine samples from Beijing and signaled that results from another 250 retests from the 2012 Olympics are also forthcoming. This is on top of ongoing corruption cases that implicate more than a dozen FIFA officials, as well as the refusals of a string of western European nations to host the Winter Olympics in part because of their citizens' disillusionment with the IOC.

If Russia winds up having to give medals back, Putin's Olympics will go into the books as a sham—at least outside the Motherland—a fortnight of circus to shore up his approval ratings and power. And it would make Russia's hosting of the 2018 World Cup a feckless exercise in soft power. As Nye says, "To the extent that there's cynicism, that people believe they're phony or rigged, these events are less attractive." This diminishes what any country can leverage from a huge medal haul, an over-the-top opening ceremony or a smoothly run World Cup.

But there's a flip side: For its work in bringing FIFA to heel, the U.S. is currently beloved by soccer fans all over the world. Headlines in Germany hail U.S. attorney general Loretta Lynch as FIFA-JÄGERIN ("FIFA Hunter"), while Roger Bennett, the English co-host of Men in Blazers, calls her prosecution of soccer's malefactors America's "greatest contribution since the Marshall Plan." Last week The New York Times reported that the same federal prosecutors' office in Brooklyn pressing the case against FIFA corruption—they claim jurisdiction over non-nationals who might have used a U.S.-based bank or Internet server in the commission of a crime—are now investigating suspects in international drug-testing fraud.

Even if the feds can make a case, it's a long shot that they would be able to bring Russians to book in a Stateside courtroom. But the U.S. reaps soft-power benefits simply by playing the role of cop on the beat. The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency's ban of Lance Armstrong, and the government's 2013 decision to join Floyd Landis's whistle-blower lawsuit against Armstrong under the False Claims Act, suggest that the U.S. doesn't consider even its most iconic sports figures above the law. "If the U.S. is seen as standing for honesty in sports," Nye says, "that helps our brand."

So when you see the Marvel superhero illustration of Lynch or read about the next dirty athlete caught in USADA chief Travis Tygart's crosshairs, don't think only of legal eagles in zealous pursuit of justice. Think of events that taken together, add up to something like foreign policy.

GO FIGURE

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Condoms per athlete that will be available at the Rio Olympics, a record. There will be 450,000 condoms distributed in the athlete villages, three times more than the London Games in 2012.

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PHOTO ILLUSTRATION

JOSE LUIS MAGANA/AP (LYNCH); PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY SI PREMEDIA: BRUNO DOMINGOS/REUTERS (WORLD CUP TROPHY); LOCOG/GETTY IMAGES (MEDAL)

TOP COP Lynch's investigations have put a hard edge on soft power.

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CHEMA REY/ZUMA PRESS (BARCELONA)

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MATIAS J. OCNER/MIAMI HERALD/TNS/ABACA (STANTON)

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KEVIN LEIGH (CONDOMS)