Thursday, June 13, 2024

Did China cover up a swim team doping scandal? – DW – 04/23/2024

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Another possible major doping scandal is shaking world sport less than 100 days before the start of the Olympic Games in Paris on July 26.

What happened?

According to research by the doping investigations team at German broadcaster ARD and the US newspaper, The New York Times, 23 Chinese swimmers tested positive for the banned substance trimetazidine at a swimming competition in January, 2021 in Shijiazhuang, the capital of the northern Chinese province of Hebei.

However, the Chinese anti-doping agency, CHINADA, did not classify the results as specific suspected cases and the participants were allowed to continue competing. The reason, according to CHINADA, was that there were low concentrations of the drug and fluctuating values. An official statement from CHINADA said the Chinese swimmers were victims of “mass contamination” in the kitchen of the team hotel. 

The ARD doping investigation team had the Chinese version of events recreated and tested in an experiment in a German laboratory. The result: it could have happened as CHINADA described, but it is extremely unlikely. It is more likely that the active participants had already taken the doping substance weeks before.

Which swimmers are we talking about?

The 23 athletes in question belonged to China’s national swimming team, some of whom are now among the world’s elite. Three of them won gold at the 2021 Olympic Games in Tokyo: Zhang Yufei became a double Olympic champion (women’s 200 meter butterfly and 4×200 meter freestyle relay), Wang Shun won individual gold (men’s 200 meter individual medley), and Yang Junxuan won relay gold (women’s 4×200 meter freestyle relay). Qin Haiyang, a four-time world champion in 2023, was also affected.

Swimmer Qin Haiyang looks up from the pool
China’s Qin Haiyang celebrates at the 2023 World Aquatics ChampionshipsImage: Zhang Xiaoyu/Xinhua News Agency/picture alliance

Three of the athletes who tested positive were still minors at the time of the doping control testing in Shijiazhuang. Two of them — then 15-years-old — later became relay world champions: Wang Yichun in 2023 and Yu Yiting in 2024.

Which doping substance is it?

Trimetazidine is an active ingredient used in medicines against heart disease. For athletes, it is considered a performance-enhancing drug. Trimetazidine has been listed as a banned substance by WADA since 2014. It is used as a doping substance primarily in endurance and strength sports.

In 2014, Chinese swimming star Sun Yang, a double Olympic champion at London 2012, tested positive for trimetazidine and was banned for three months. The doping scandal involving Russian figure skater Kamila Valieva, who was only 15-years-old at the time at the 2022 Olympic Games in Beijing, also involved trimetazidine. The International Court of Arbitration for Sport retroactively banned Valieva for four years in 2024. Russia lost the gold medal in the team competition because the young figure skater was part of the winning team at the time.

Did WADA do all it could to investigate?

Normally, athletes who are suspected of doping are immediately suspended until the allegations are clarified. In this particular case, however, the Chinese athletes were allowed to compete. WADA said it was informed of the matter by CHINADA in June, 2021, and had “carefully reviewed” it for several weeks. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, WADA was unable to carry out its investigation on site in China. 

In the end, WADA says it was unable to refute the theory of mass contamination in the team hotel and stated “that it was compatible with the analytical data in the file.” The athletes, WADA determined, could not be accused of “any fault or negligence.”

In its own words, even after the ARD-New York Times reports, WADA “remains committed to the results of its scientific investigation and the legal decisions in this case” and does not see sufficient evidence to initiate a new investigation. WADA reserved the right to take legal action against the media involved because of “misleading information.”

In the meantime, however, the World Anti-Doping Agency has called for an independent prosecutor to investigate its handling of the incidents. In addition, the global supervisory authority has announced that it will send a “compliance team” to China to assess “the current status of the country’s anti-doping programme”. Of course, this is not an admission of guilt. 

“We continue to reject the false allegations and are pleased that we can place these issues in the hands of an experienced, respected and independent prosecutor”, said WADA President Witold Banka in a statement. Former Swiss prosecutor Eric Cottier is to investigate the incidents and will be given “full and unrestricted” access to all files and documents relating to the case.

How did the sports world react?

Travis Tygart, head of the US anti-doping agency USADA, speaks in the ARD documentary of “shocking revelations” and a “knife in the back of all clean athletes.” He accuses WADA and CHINADA of sweeping the positive tests under the carpet and says that the competing athletes should have been suspended, at least temporarily.

The athlete representatives of the organizations “Global Athlete” and “Fair Sport” see it the same way and are calling for rapid clarification. If the allegations are true, it would be “another catastrophic failure of the global anti-doping system and underscores the need to dismantle the WADA structure,” the two organizations said in a joint statement.

Germany’s Federal Interior Minister Nancy Faeser, who is responsible for sports in Germany, also believes WADA need to do more.

“A few months before the Olympic Games, the suspicion of turning a blind eye, or even covering things up, must be clarified as quickly as possible,” said the Social Democrat. Christian Hansmann, competitive sports director of the German Swimming Association (DSV), spoke of “worrying” news from China and called for “consequences, if necessary — this is the only way the integrity of the sport can be preserved.”

The Chinese Foreign Ministry dismissed the ARD report as “fake news.” There was “neither fault nor negligence,” it stated.

 Zhang Yufei of China smiling with her medals at the Tokyo Olympic Games
Zhang Yufei of China was a shining star at the Tokyo Olympic Games Image: Xu Chang/Xinhua News Agency/picture alliance

What the case means for Paris 2024

As long as WADA refuses to initiate new investigations and thus admit a justified suspicion of doping, all 23 affected Chinese swimmers will theoretically be able take part in the Paris Games.

The Chinese national swimming championships are taking place in the city of Shenzhen until Saturday, April 27. Not only are national titles being awarded, but also the tickets for the 2024 Olympics.

This article was adapted from German.

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