Chinese swimming scandal: a strong defence by world anti-doping body, but narrative of ‘cover-up’ remains

When the news broke last weekend that 23 Chinese swimmers had tested positive to a banned drug in early 2021 and were allowed to compete at the Tokyo Olympic Games six months later without sanction, many people – particularly in the Western world – immediately suspected a cover-up.


  • Tracey Holmes

    Professorial Fellow in Sport, University of Canberra

  • Catherine Ordway

    Associate Professor Sport Management and Sport Integrity Lead, University of Canberra

The US anti-doping boss, Travis Tygart, has been one of the most vocal critics of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), claiming the Chinese positive tests had been “swept under the carpet” by the body.

A few days later, the US Anti-Doping Agency stepped up its attacks, calling on governments and sports leaders to overhaul WADA and appoint an independent prosecutor to investigate the 23 positive cases in China.

WADA has been put on the defensive. It has threatened legal proceedings against Tygart for his “outrageous, completely false and defamatory remarks”. And it hosted a virtual media conference about the case, with a panel of the agency’s anti-doping heavyweights taking legal, scientific and sports governance questions for almost two hours.

Reputational damage to WADA

Transparency is key to any organisation’s reputation. It is never a good look when a body like WADA is forced to respond to a story exposed by the media, in this case a German documentary and a New York Times report.

WADA has surely suffered reputational damage by not being open about the case when it unfolded three years ago. But it maintains it couldn’t have handled the situation differently because of the complexity of the global anti-doping framework between WADA and national anti-doping agencies.

It wasn’t up to WADA to make the details of the failed tests public – this responsibility rested with the China Anti-Doping Agency (CHINADA) because it had carried out the tests and investigated the positive results. To protect innocent athletes if no violation is found, no public announcement is required.

Given an investigation by the Chinese Ministry of Public Security found traces of the banned substance trimetazidine (TMZ) in a kitchen at the swimmers’ hotel, CHINADA ruled the positive tests were the result of accidental contamination. The Chinese swimmers were cleared without any public announcement.

WADA says China’s national anti-doping agency kept them abreast of events throughout their extensive investigation, which took place during strict COVID lockdowns and was impacted by a local outbreak of the virus.

Far from accepting CHINADA’s findings on the face of it, WADA requested the entire case file so it could conduct its own scientific and legal investigations – including speaking with the drug manufacturer to get the latest unpublished science on TMZ, and comparing the Chinese positive tests with TMZ cases in other countries, including the US. WADA ultimately determined there was no concrete evidence to “disprove” the possibility of environmental contamination.

Here are a few reasons WADA gave as to why in its press conference this week:

  • More than 200 swimmers competing in the Chinese National Championships were staying in at least two different hotels at the time. The swimmers who tested positive to non-performance-enhancing amounts of TMZ were all at one hotel.

  • There were fluctuating negative and positive results for the swimmers that were tested on multiple occasions, which were not consistent with deliberate doping techniques, including microdosing.

  • WADA found no evidence of misconduct or manipulation in the case file handed over by CHINADA.

WADA says it reviews between 2,000 and 3,000 cases of suspected doping every year. It is not unusual for the body to file an appeal challenging anti-doping findings.

For example, WADA challenged an Australian Football League decision to clear 34 members of the Essendon Football Club. It also appealed a decision by the world swimming body, FINA, to clear high-profile Chinese swimmer Sun Yang of wrongdoing for his conduct during a 2018 drug test.

According to WADA’s general counsel, Ross Wenzel, the difference between these cases and the more recent allegations against the Chinese swimmers was that the body accepted the “no fault” finding in the latter case. In the earlier cases, it did not.

He also said WADA received external legal advice that it would have had less than a 1% chance of winning an appeal in the TMZ case. According to WADA, everything was handled by the book, and if the body was faced with the same situation again, it would do nothing differently.

Has China been unfairly singled out?

So, has WADA succeeded in changing the narrative? Probably not.

Why? Because putting the words “China” and “doping” together is a lightning rod in the current political climate given the intense rivalry between China and the US.

Currently there are 23 people serving anti-doping suspensions in Australia. Do we feel personal or national shame for their wrongdoing?

Every time the US team marches into an Olympic Games, or steps up onto a World Championships medal podium, do we point at them while recalling memories of the US Postal Service cycling team and the banned-for-life cyclist Lance Armstrong?

But when it comes to China, many observers are quick to name and shame athletes, viewing every news story as some kind of proof the country must have a systemic, state-sanctioned doping program.

Stories in the media about a possible medal redistribution in the Tokyo Olympic swimming events have falsely raised the hopes of those who finished behind the Chinese athletes – and likely been an unwanted distraction for the Chinese team preparing for the Paris Olympics.

Olympic purists might want to believe the Games are above politics. But with the US facing a pivotal election, wars being fought around the world and both Russia and China being cast as threats to democracy, the geopolitical stakes at these games are far greater than the politics of doping.

WADA – like the United Nations and other organisations – finds itself in the cross hairs of the great power struggle of our time: a rising China and its challenge to US dominance.

The Conversation

Catherine Ordway previously worked as the Group Director Enforcement and Group Director Detection for the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority (now Sport Integrity Australia). The University of Canberra and Sport Integrity Australia have a memorandum of understanding in place to support a number of research projects, including a PhD project that Catherine supervises titled: “Optimising the Anti-Doping Framework: Unveiling Athlete Perspectives and Proposing Enhancements for a More Effective System.” Catherine is also a member of the World Anti-Doping Agency Social Science Research Expert Advisory Group, a voluntary position that provides advice and guidance to WADA’s Social Science grant program for funding for academics working on anti-doping projects.

Tracey Holmes does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

/Courtesy of The Conversation. View in full here.