The doping crisis set to test the Paris Olympics

The 23 athletes who tested positive made up about half of China’s swim team in Tokyo, and accounted for five of the six medals it won—including all three golds, according to a report in the New York Times and a documentary by the German broadcaster ARD that detailed the cases, which had not previously been publicly disclosed.. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek, file) (AP)
The 23 athletes who tested positive made up about half of China’s swim team in Tokyo, and accounted for five of the six medals it won—including all three golds, according to a report in the New York Times and a documentary by the German broadcaster ARD that detailed the cases, which had not previously been publicly disclosed.. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek, file) (AP)

Summary

The World Anti-Doping Agency faces a credibility fight over its handling of 23 Chinese swimmers’ failed drug tests.

An uproar over revelations that 23 Chinese swimmers tested positive for a banned substance ahead of the 2021 Tokyo Olympics is exposing deep fault lines in global anti-doping measures that will run directly into this summer’s Paris Games.

The swimmers tested positive for the heart drug trimetazidine at the Chinese national championships in early 2021, but were allowed to continue competing after Chinese officials privately cleared them and the World Anti-Doping Agency concluded it wasn’t in position to disprove the explanation provided by China’s anti-doping authority, Chinada.

Chinada said that the swimmers all inadvertently ingested small amounts of the substance by eating tainted food while staying at the same hotel. WADA officials say that theory is consistent with the swimmers’ test results, and the account of Chinese authorities that they found evidence of trimetazidine in their hotel kitchen.

But WADA officials also acknowledge that they have heard no concrete explanation for how a prescription drug found its way into a food preparation area. They couldn’t conduct their own inquiries on the ground in China because of Covid lockdowns, the agency added.

The conflict now creates a crisis of credibility for the body responsible for keeping the Paris Games clean, at a time when the legacy of Russian doping still hangs over the Olympics. Global sports had been looking forward to a brighter era of Games, with a ban on Russian participation over the invasion of Ukraine and a reset after years dominated by the pandemic and the Games’ authoritarian hosts. Now, Paris faces questions over whether anti-doping authorities are soft on China, and WADA is entangled in tension with the U.S., China and Russia all at the same time.

“The recent allegations of doping cast a shadow of uncertainty as we head into the Olympic and Paralympic cycle," U.S. Olympic chief executive Sarah Hirshland said Monday.

The 23 athletes who tested positive made up about half of China’s swim team in Tokyo, and accounted for five of the six medals it won—including all three golds, according to a report in the New York Times and a documentary by the German broadcaster ARD that detailed the cases, which had not previously been publicly disclosed.

WADA’s handling of the positives sparked outrage from the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. Usada chief executive Travis Tygart said Chinada and WADA “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 added that the athletes should have been provisionally suspended after their failed tests.

WADA has called Tygart’s statements “completely false and defamatory." On Monday, in a 95-minute press conference by WADA, general counsel Ross Wenzel said that suggestions of a coverup “couldn’t be further from the truth." Wenzel maintained that WADA acted appropriately and said the agency was also considering action over leaks of confidential information.

Beijing has called the reports “fake news and not factual." At a Monday news conference, Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Wang Wenbin added that “the Chinese swimmers involved were neither at fault nor guilty of negligence, and their behavior did not constitute a doping violation."

Russia, meanwhile, is watching Chinese swimmers seemingly dodge fallout from a scandal involving the same drug that resulted in the disqualification of its teenage star Kamila Valieva at the 2022 Winter Olympic Games in Beijing, which is set to cost the Russian Olympic Committee a team figure skating gold medal.

The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency has already drawn comparisons between the handling of the two cases. The Russian anti-doping agency didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

WADA officials said on Monday that they had acted appropriately to handle a difficult situation ahead of the delayed Summer Olympics in Tokyo in a way that was fairest to the athletes involved.

Most of the 23 Chinese swimmers’ tests showed levels of trimetazidine that were far lower than Valieva’s, they said, and were consistent with accidental ingestion that did not benefit their performance, while her explanations changed over time and did not match her results.

In the case of the Chinese athletes, WADA almost certainly would have lost had it tried to challenge the Chinese anti-doping agency’s contamination explanation before an international sports court, WADA officials said.

“If we had to do it over again now, we would do the exact same thing," said director general Olivier Niggli. “The fact is that we apply the same standards and procedures regardless of the nationality of the athletes."

—Jonathan Cheng contributed to this article.

Write to Louise Radnofsky at louise.radnofsky@wsj.com and Rachel Bachman at Rachel.Bachman@wsj.com

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