Chinese swimmers failed doping tests ahead of Tokyo Olympics

Head of US Anti-Doping calls it ‘stab in the back of clean athletes’

AFP April 21, 2024


Twenty-three Chinese swimmers tested positive for a banned drug before the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 the World Anti-Doping Agency confirmed Saturday, defending the decision to let them compete based on China's findings they had ingested it unknowingly.

The New York Times and German broadcaster ARD reported Saturday that the athletes included nearly half of the swimming team that China sent to Japan, with several going on to win medals, including gold.

Many are expected to be in contention again at the Paris Olympics this summer.

The Times reported that they tested positive for a prescription heart drug, trimetazidine (TMZ) -- which can enhance performance -- at a domestic meet in late 2020 and the first days of 2021.

But it was determined by Chinese anti-doping authorities that they ingested the substance unwittingly from tainted food and no action against them was warranted.

The newspaper cited a review of confidential documents and emails, including a report compiled by the Chinese anti-doping agency and submitted to its global counterpart WADA.

It said WADA and swimming's governing body World Aquatics, which at the time was known as FINA, decided not to act due to "a lack of any credible evidence" to challenge China's version of events.

WADA, in a statement on Saturday decrying "some misleading and potentially defamatory media coverage this week", said that it had "ultimately concluded that it was not in a position to disprove the possibility that contamination was the source of TMZ and it was compatible with the analytical data in the file".

"WADA also concluded that, given the specific circumstances of the asserted contamination, the athletes would be held to have no fault or negligence."

WADA's senior director of science and medicine Olivier Rabin added: "Ultimately, we concluded that there was no concrete basis to challenge the asserted contamination."

World Aquatics confirmed to the Times the cases had been reviewed by a doping control board and were subjected to independent expert scrutiny.

But the United States Anti-Doping Agency said the swimmers should have been suspended and publicly identified, calling WADA's lack of action "a devastating stab in the back of clean athletes".

The organisation's chief executive Travis T. Tygart claimed he had provided WADA with allegations of doping in Chinese swimming multiple times since 2020.

WADA said that "the information provided to us by USADA and others was reviewed on each occasion in line with our normal procedure, and assessed according to the criteria stipulated within our Confidential Source Policy".

"The data held by us clearly showed that there had been no attempt to hide the positive tests as they had been reported in the usual way by the Chinese authorities. Therefore, based on the available information and a lack of any credible evidence, the threshold for WADA I&I (Intelligence and Investigations Department) to open an investigation was not met."

Tygart called the news of the failed tests "crushing".

"It's even more devastating to learn the World Anti-Doping Agency and the Chinese Anti-Doping Agency secretly, until now, swept these positives under the carpet by failing to fairly and evenly follow the global rules that apply to everyone else in the world," Tygart said in an USADA statement on Saturday.

"Our hearts ache for the athletes from the countries who were impacted by this potential cover-up and who may have lost podium moments, financial opportunities, and memories with family that can never be replaced.

"All of those with dirty hands in burying positive tests and suppressing the voices of courageous whistleblowers must be held accountable to the fullest extent of the rules and law."

WADA later lashed out at Tygart claiming his remarks were "outrageous, completely false and defamatory".

"Mr. Tygart should realise that it is not only American athletes who can fall victim to situations of no-fault contamination," WADA said, adding that "following Mr. Tygart's false allegations, WADA has no choice but to refer this matter to its legal counsel for further action."

Tygart promptly hit back, calling it "disappointing to see WADA stoop to threats and scare tactics when confronted with a blatant violation of the rules governing anti-doping."

Tygart said USADA had long advocated for a change in rules regarding accidental contamination cases but said that TMZ was not among the substances that can cause such contamination.

He added that in investigating potential contamination cases USADA followed anti-doping rules including the issuing of provisional suspensions and disqualification of results pending the outcome of cases.

"Transparency is the key to shining the light in the darkness, and here, by not following the rules, WADA and CHINDA have left clean athletes in the dark," Tygart said.

Chinese swimming has a chequered doping history. Seven Chinese swimmers tested positive for steroids at the 1994 Asian Games in Hiroshima.

In 1998, swimmer Yuan Yuan was banned after Australian customs officers discovered a large stash of human growth hormone in her bags at the World Championships in Perth.

More recently, three-time Olympic champion Sun Yang was banned for doping, ruling him out of the Tokyo Olympics.


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