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Want to follow swimming in Paris? Then get up to speed on WADA, doping, China and trimetazidine

TOKYO (AP) — The Paris Olympics open next month and the agency that oversees doping enforcement is under scrutiny following allegations it failed to pursue positive tests of Chinese swimmers who subsequently won medals — including three gold — at the Tokyo Games in 2021.

The focus on the World Anti-Doping Agency and China's swimmers raises questions for athletes about the fairness of the competitions and the effectiveness of doping control at the Olympics.

“It’s hard going into Paris knowing that we’re going to be racing some of these athletes,” American swimmer Katie Ledecky, a seven-time Olympic champion, said in a television interview. “I think our faith in the system is at an all-time low.”

Rob Koehler, who worked as a deputy director of WADA until 2018, offered a similar tone.

“Athletes have zero confidence in the global regulator and World Aquatics," Koehler, the director general of athletes' advocacy body Global Athlete, told The Associated Press. “Transparency is needed more than ever. Without it, the anti-doping movement will crumble and athletes will never feel they have a level playing field."

The background

From Jan. 1-3, 2021, 23 elite Chinese swimmers tested positive for the banned substance trimetazidine — a heart medication known as TMZ — while competing in the Chinese city of Shijiazhuang and staying in a local hotel.

Chinese authorities investigated but did not sanction the swimmers and said they had unwittingly ingested the banned substance. They blamed food/environmental contamination and said the drug had gotten into spice containers in the hotel kitchen.

The investigation was carried out by the Chinese Minister of Public Security, China’s national police force.

WADA accepted the explanation and argued, in part, it was not possible to send its own investigators to China during what officials said was a "local COVID outbreak."

Several of those athletes later won medals at the Tokyo Olympics, including gold medals in three events.

Eleven of the 23 Chinese swimmers were named this month on the country’s national team to compete in Paris, including Zhang Yufei, who won gold in the 200-meter butterfly and the women’s 4x200 freestyle relay. She also won two silver medals in Tokyo.

Also on the list for Paris is 200 individual medley Olympic gold-medalist Wang Shun, and 200 breaststroke world-record holder Qin Haiyang.

The criticism of WADA

WADA has been criticized for seeming to look the other way at aspects of the Chinese anti-doping agency's investigation and reporting. It has also not published any of the science behind its decision.

The Chinese agency, known as CHINADA, did not report the positive tests to WADA until mid-March. And in early April 2021 it told WADA it had begun an investigation. On June 15 of that year, it told WADA that environmental contamination was the cause and said it was not pursing an ADRV — an anti-doping rules violation.

Had an anti-doping rules violation been found, CHINADA should have filed a mandatory provisional suspension with a public disclosure forthcoming.

Many questions have been asked since the case became public this year, including by a bipartisan group of U.S. senators. Why did it take 2 1/2 months to report the findings, and why was the investigation begun even later? WADA attributes the “certain delays” to COVID restrictions.

Why was there an apparent delay in inspecting the hotel kitchen? Why was the residue still around, particularly in light of China's tough sanitation rules during the pandemic? And where did the TMZ come from and how did it land in a spice container? Why were the national police involved in a sports doping case?

The New York Times and German broadcaster ARD broke the story in April of this year.

WADA's defense

Basically, WADA says it had no grounds to challenge the findings of CHINADA. WADA did say, however, it did not agree with all of CHINADA's investigation “for largely technical reasons.”

WADA says it accepted the contamination theory because: the levels of TMZ were very low; the swimmers were from different regions of China; and the swimmers were in the same place when the positive tests occurred. Also, competing swimmers stayed in another hotel. Three were tested and none tested positive.

Legally, WADA argued that it could have appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport but was advised not to by external lawyers. It would have been a narrow appeal that would not have kept the athletes from competing at the Tokyo Olympics.

WADA has appointed retired Swiss prosecutor Eric Cottier to review the handling of the case. Fairly or not, his impartiality has been questioned.

The banned medication

Trimetazidine is listed as a “metabolic modulator” and is banned by WADA — in competition and out of competition. It is believed to help endurance and recovery time after training. One of the best-known TMZ cases involved Chinese swimmer Sun Yang, who was suspended for three months in 2014 after testing positive for the substance. He also served a four-year suspension for a separate doping violation.

Russian figure skater Kamila Valieva tested positive for TMZ weeks before the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. She said the substance had belonged to her grandfather and had accidentally contaminated her food. She was allowed to skate in Beijing, but was was eventually handed a four-year suspension.

WADA said Valieva's contamination scenario “was not compatible with the analytical results.” In the case of the Chinese swimmers, WADA said “the contamination scenario was plausible and that there was no concrete scientific element to challenge it.”

Strict Liability

The principle of “Strict Liability” — athletes are responsible for what they ingest — is at the heart of the WADA code, and is there to ensure all athletes are treated equally. Some question if the principle was followed in this case.

WADA's rules specify that a “mandatory provisional suspension” should have taken place after the positive tests, which were carried out at a WADA-approved laboratory in Beijing. The local anti-doping agency — in this case, CHINADA — should have issued the suspension.

“CHINADA's handling of the case, and WADA's subsequent response, did not adhere to the most essential rule in the code — the principle of Strict Liability,” Steven Teitler, the legal director of the Netherlands doping agency, wrote in a white paper examining the case.

WADA further muddied the water in a fact sheet it published. It said “even for mandatory provisional suspensions there are exceptions.” It said there were multiple precedents for the decision to exonerate the Chinese athletes, precedents that did not seem to have been widely known.

This has raised more questions about how the agency follows its own rules.

The anti-doping system relies on national agencies like CHINADA to enforce the rules, which can clash with the wishes of high-profile athletes and the prestige they might bring to a country and its government.


AP Summer Olympics: https://apnews.com/hub/2024-paris-olympic-games

News from © The Associated Press, 2024
The Associated Press

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