'Cheated': Chinese doping case shocks swimming

The revelation that 23 Chinese swimmers tested positive for a banned drug seven months before the Tokyo Olympics, but were secretly allowed to continue competing, has exposed a bitter and sometimes deeply personal rift within the sport, and has brought fresh criticism to the global authority that oversees drug testing.

A New York Times investigation has uncovered previously unreported details of the 2021 episode, in which a contingent of Chinese swimmers, including nearly half the team China sent to the Tokyo Games, tested positive for a drug for the heart prohibited by prescription that can help athletes increase endurance. and reduce recovery times.

Within hours, the disclosure of an incident that had remained secret for more than three years had sparked strong reactions from athletes, coaches and others fighting to keep drugs out of elite sports.

An American Olympian who brought home a silver medal from Tokyo said she felt her team had been “cheated” in a race won by China. A British gold medalist has called on social media for a lifetime ban for the swimmers involved. And a simmering feud between officials at the World Anti-Doping Agency, the global regulator known as WADA, and their U.S. counterparts has exploded into the open in a flurry of caustic statements and legal threats.

“Any time a situation arises where positive tests are not clearly identified and are not put through proper process and protocol, doubt can creep into the minds of cleanly competing athletes,” said Greg Meehan, l Stanford University coach who led the test. The US women's team at the Tokyo Games. “When they compete, you can't help but think, 'Am I competing in a clean event?'”

The consequences come less than 100 days before the opening ceremony of the Paris Olympics. This has created uncomfortable headlines both for the sport but also for the Games themselves, which depend on global anti-doping regulators to ensure fair play and the integrity of medals awarded – which can validate years of training, define athletes' careers and confer pride to a nation.

China's anti-doping agency, known as Chinada, acknowledged the positive tests in a response to questions last week, but said the swimmers had ingested the banned substance unintentionally and in small quantities, and that no action was warranted against them. WADA, saying it had “no credible evidence” to dispute China's version of events, said it had refused to impose suspensions, disqualifications or even make any public announcement of positive results.

In many ways, the fight over Chinese positives is about process. In all but the rarest circumstances, any athlete who tests positive for a powerful banned drug such as the one in question, trimetazidine, is subject to at least an interim suspension while investigations take place. There is no evidence that this happened in the case of Chinese athletes.

WADA and Chinada have strongly disputed any claims that they concealed the positive tests, saying they complied with all applicable rules in investigating them. The director of WADA's intelligence and investigations unit, Günter Younger, said it had “diligently investigated every lead and line of inquiry into this matter.”

“The data we have clearly shows that there was no attempt to hide the positive tests as they were reported in the usual way by the Chinese authorities,” he said.

For those personally affected, however, the revelation was much more personal.

The Times identified five events at the Tokyo Games in which Chinese swimmers who tested positive for a banned substance won medals, including three golds.

Paige Madden, a member of the U.S. 4×200 freestyle relay team that finished second to China with a time faster than the previous world record, said in a text message to the New York Times that she hopes the handling of the doping case is investigated and a reallocation of medals was considered.

“We had to applaud China's efforts that day,” she said of being beaten by a faster team. “Today, however, I feel that Team USA was deceived. We didn't get to celebrate our world record and we didn't have the moment for our team to stand on the top step of the podium to look at our flag and sing the national anthem.

In posts on X, three-time gold medalist British Olympic swimmer Adam Peaty criticized an uneven application of a system known as strict liability, a foundation of international doping rules in which athletes are held responsible for any banned substance found in their body, regardless of how it got there, making the bar extremely high for avoiding consequences . Peaty's Olympic teammate James Guy, who won two golds in Tokyo, went further, writing: “Band them all and never compete again.”

The ugliest fight, though, was between the world's top anti-doping officials.

On Saturday, WADA threatened legal action against the CEO of the United States Anti-Doping Agency, Travis T. Tygart, in an unusually personal press release that accused him of “undermining WADA's work to protect clean sport all over the world”.

Tygart, who had publicly criticized the handling of the China case, immediately fired back. “It is disappointing to see WADA stoop to threats and scare tactics in the face of a blatant violation of anti-doping regulations,” he said. “When you sweep away their rhetoric, the facts remain as they have been reported: WADA failed to provisionally suspend athletes, disqualify results and publicly reveal the positives. These are huge failures.”

The back-and-forth brought to public light a long-standing feud between global anti-doping officials and their American counterparts. In a March interview, WADA Director General Olivier Niggli previously expressed disappointment with the US anti-doping agency and Tygart.

“Everything we do gets criticized,” Niggli said.

WADA said it had reported Mr Tygart's most recent comments to its legal department. But WADA and China's anti-doping agency also threatened legal action against media outlets that reported information they called “misleading.”

It is not clear, however, what can or will happen next. WADA maintains management of Chinese swimmers' positive tests. World Aquatics, the organization that governs swimming internationally, told the Times that it believes the positive tests were handled “diligently and professionally and in accordance with all applicable anti-doping regulations.”

And on Sunday, China's best swimmers competed on the third day of the country's Olympic trials. Some of the swimmers identified as testing positive in 2021 will again be at the forefront, including Zhang Yufei, who won four Olympic medals at the Tokyo Games, including two golds.

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