Top Chinese swimmers competed, won medals in Tokyo Olympics despite failing drug tests

Top Chinese swimmers competed, won medals in Tokyo Olympics despite failing drug tests
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New York, US: As many as 23 top Chinese swimmers tested positive for a prohibited substance seven months before their participation in the Tokyo Olympics and were allowed to escape scrutiny and compete at the top sporting event following a secret clearance from top Chinese officials, The New York Times claimed in a report, adding that the global authority given responsibility for policing drugs in sports chose not to intervene.

Several athletes who tested positive, including almost half of the swimming team that China sent to Olympics, secured medals, including three golds. Many of these swimmers, including two-time gold medalist Zhang Yufei, still compete for China and are expected to play in the Paris Olympics this year from July-August, according to the New York Times.

The story of positive tests started to unfold a year into the Covid-19 pandemic when anti-doping authorities feared that travel bans and closed borders will make cheating and doping easier, reduce opportunities for testing at international events and led to heavy reliance on national antidoping authorities.

About two dozen positive tests of these swimmers were collected during an event held over four days from December 2020 and January 2021 in Shijiazhuang. The meet was organised by China's national swimming body and was supposed to be a warm-up for 200 of nation's athletes, who were all training in seclusion during the pandemic for the Olympics. At the meet, Chinada tested the top two finishers from each event and a couple others from other 29 races.

Samples are supposed to be sent to an accredited laboratory, analysed and reported to the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and World Aquatics. But for unknown reasons, these tests were not reported to the computer management system tracking testing of athletes until March 15, 2021, the report noted. Chinada said that WADA let them freeze the tests for a month after they were collected due to the pandemic.

Later, as per a 61-page investigative report compiled by Chinada and reviewed by The New York Times, a total of 60 tests were done on 39 swimmers. 28 of these tests were positive, including 23 of the meet's competitors, who all tested positive for trimetazidine. This drug helps in raising of stamina, endurance and hastening of recovery time. It is also difficult to detect because of how it clears through the body.

China acknowledged these positive tests in a report by its antidoping regulator and said that swimmers ingested the prohibited substances unknowingly and in tiny amounts and consequently, no action was warranted against them.

An examination by the NYT found that this episode, previously unreported, divided the anti-doping world, where China's record has been a flashpoint. American officials and other experts said that the athletes should have been suspended or identified publicly and suggested that Chinese sports officials, swimming's international governing body, World Aquatics and the World Anti Doping Agency failed in their duties.

The aforementioned authorities did not act despite a small email exchange between an anti-doping official from China and a top world swimming official, which indicated that a violation of rules may have taken place and would have to be acknowledged publicly at least.

Even as other national and international anti doping officials provided WADA with intelligence inputs suggesting a cover-up and doping by Chinese swimmers, WADA did not hold them accountable due to "a lack of any credible evidence" to challenge China's version of events. WADA also defended its decision to take action and called the criticism as 'unsubstantiated'.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) learnt of these positive tests, the Chinese rationale of clearing the athletes of their wrongdoing and WADA's inaction, according to two people familiar with the matter and the document examined by The Times.

Federal investigators recently took steps to learn more about what occurred. A spokesman for the FBI, however, declined to comment on the news report. Any inquiry by the American authorities would come with a powerful new tool--a law passed in 2020 giving the Justice Department powers to criminally prosecute attempts to corrupt international sporting events via doping, irrespective of where they are taking place.

In a statement issued as a response to a question from the NYT, the US Anti-Doping Agency accused WADA of failing in its mission of checking doping.

"This appears to be a devastating stab in the back of clean athletes and a deep betrayal of all the athletes who compete fairly and follow the rules," the US antidoping agency's chief executive officer, Travis T. Tygart, was quoted as saying by the New York Times. He acknowledged that WADA was briefed on allegations of doping among Chinese swimmers on multiple occasions since 2020.

"All of those with dirty hands in burying these positives and suppressing the voices of courageous whistleblowers must be held accountable to the fullest extent of the rules and law," the statement read.

An investigation done by Chinada, the Chinese doping agency, suggested that the incident of doping stemmed from tainted food supply. In their report, Chinese investigators described how the country's best swimmers were staying inside the same hotel for a domestic meet back in final days of 2020 and the first few days of 2021. Two months after they tested positive for the prohibited substance, which was a prescription heart drug that could enhance performance, Chinese investigators reported that traces of the substance were found in the kitchen of the hotel. Their report, however, offered no evidence of how drugs got to the kitchen and concluded that Chinese swimmers ingested it in small amounts unwittingly.

WADA issued a statement saying that it had "carefully reviewed the decision" made by the Chinese and had decided not to act following consultations with scientists and external legal counsel "to thoroughly test the contamination theory presented by Chinada."

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

In contrast to WADA's position, the International Testing Agency, based in Switzerland, said its own assessment of the case remained ongoing.

Chinada said in its statement that it had determined that there was no violation by its athletes of any anti-doping laws and was not obliged to publish any case related details without consent of the athletes.

The Chinese Swimming Association also did not reply to queries on the tests.

World Aquatics confirmed that cases were reviewed by the doping control board and faced independent expert scrutiny, without providing further details.

"World Aquatics is confident that these A.A.F.s were handled diligently and professionally, and in accordance with all applicable antidoping regulations, including the World Anti-Doping Code," World Aquatics said in the statement.

The story of swimmers ingesting the substance unknowingly gave a rationale to the Chinese authorities to break with normal anti-doping protocols, which included a public declaration of an athlete being suspended till end of the investigation, particularly if the finding of food contamination was not established.

WADA's handling of this case is in stark contrast with a case from 2022 when a Russian figure skater tested positive for the same banned heart drug, trimetazidine, just before the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympic Games. The skater named Kamila also blamed food contamination and tested positive for low levels of substance.

But WADA acted swiftly and appealed the Russian's antidoping agency's decision to clear her and the top court in sports barred her from international competition for four years.

The case of Kamila came after WADA faced accusations of ignoring clues that pointed to Russia's systematic doping for years. Since that scandal, some anti doping authorities have called for reforms in the agency, the report stated, adding that now it appears to be facing a similar set of questions.

In a court ruling explaining the decision to ban the Russian figure skater Kamila, arbitrators referred to scientific studies stating that TMZ "is widely recommended in elite sport in particular in support of the heart in connection with heavy training."

Chinada's labs reported finding only few traces of TMZ in the samples of the athletes. But any amount is enough to be counted as a "failed test" and invite an immediate suspension, except for rare circumstances, including the ones described by China.

No suspensions were imposed, no public disclosure of any kind was made and the swimmers participated in the Olympics in 2021, without WADA trying to block their participation.

Also, contrary to Chinada's report, TMZ is not an unfamiliar drug in Chinese swimming circles as in 2014, the country's swimming legend Sun Yang was tested positive for the same and faced a ban.

This time, the positive results are from Olympians like, Zhang, who secured four medals in Yokyo, including two golds and set a world record with her freestyle relay teammates, Wang Shun, who won the 200 m individual medley at the Olympics and Qin Haiyang, who made the world record in 200-meter breaststroke.