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'Ban them all.' With Paris Games looming, Chinese doping scandal rocks Olympic sport

Yufei Zhang of Team China competing during the Tokyo Olympics in 2021. Zhang won four medals in Tokyo including two gold and now is among 23 Chinese swimmers embroiled in a doping scandal.
Tom Pennington
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Yufei Zhang of Team China competing during the Tokyo Olympics in 2021. Zhang won four medals in Tokyo including two gold and now is among 23 Chinese swimmers embroiled in a doping scandal.

Updated April 22, 2024 at 14:06 PM ET

Officials with the world's leading sports anti-doping agency scrambled on Monday to contain a scandal involving 23 elite and Olympic swimmers from China who tested positive for a performance-enhancing drug.

The scandal, which comes less than a hundred days before the Paris Summer Games, is linked to positive doping tests collected in 2021 that the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and Chinese officials never publicly disclosed.

"We had no evidence of wrongdoing," said WADA President Witold Banka during a press conference with reporters that often turned combative.

"At every stage WADA followed all due processes and diligently investigated. If we had it over again, we would do exactly the same thing."

Banka went on to describe China's athletes as "innocent" and "not a doping case involving cheaters."

He said WADA had no obligation to suspend them from competition or report the case to sports officials from other countries.

Critics, however, said the scandal suggests a "potential cover-up" and raises troubling questions about the integrity of the international testing regime meant to keep Olympic sport clean.

"We had no evidence of wrongdoing," said World Anti-Doping Agency President Witold Banka. "At every stage WADA followed all due processes and diligently investigated. If we had it over again, we would do exactly the same thing."
Fabrice Coffrini / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
"We had no evidence of wrongdoing," said World Anti-Doping Agency President Witold Banka. "At every stage WADA followed all due processes and diligently investigated. If we had it over again, we would do exactly the same thing."

"It's crushing to see that 23 Chinese swimmers had positive tests for a potent performance-enhancing drug on the eve of the 2021 Olympic Games [in Tokyo]," said Travis Tygart, head of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, known as USADA.

"It's even more devastating to learn the World Anti-Doping Agency and the Chinese Anti-Doping Agency secretly, until now, swept these positives under the carpet," Tygart added in a statement.

WADA now acknowledges learning of positive drug tests for nearly two dozen Chinese swimmers in June 2021 ahead of the Tokyo Games.

During Monday's press conference, WADA officials said the 60 urine samples were actually conducted by Chinese sports officials months earlier at a swimming competition in January 2021.

After months of delay, the Chinese presented a theory to WADA that the athletes were accidentally contaminated by a potent performance-enhancing drug called trimetazidine, known as TMZ.

Chinese officials say TMZ was allegedly found in trace amounts in the kitchen of a hotel where the swimmers were staying.

China's explanation draws skepticism

No explanation has been provided for how TMZ, a controlled substance, might have made its way into the kitchen or reached the athletes.

WADA officials also confirmed Monday that they conducted no independent on-the-ground investigation and instead carried out their review using samples and data provided by China.

They eventually accepted China's explanation that no deliberate wrong-doing occurred. In addition, WADA said the COVID pandemic complicated efforts to enter China for a fuller investigation.

China's Wang Shun celebrates after winning gold in the final of the men's 200m individual medley swimming event during the Tokyo Olympic Games on July 30, 2021. His name is on a list of athletes who allegedly tested positive for a performance enhancing drug.
Oli Scarff / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
China's Wang Shun celebrates after winning gold in the final of the men's 200m individual medley swimming event during the Tokyo Olympic Games on July 30, 2021. His name is on a list of athletes who allegedly tested positive for a performance enhancing drug.

"The feedback from WADA's science department was that the [accidental] contamination scenario was not only plausible, but there was no concrete element to call it into question," said Ross Wenzel, WADA's lead attorney, during the press conference.

WADA officials say given the circumstances of the case, international doping rules did not require them to alert other competitors about the tests and investigations, nor were they required to suspend the Chinese athletes.

Despite those explanations, the case has sparked growing outrage around the world.

In a statement posted on social media, British swimmer James Guy, who won two gold medals in Tokyo and who will compete again in Paris, blasted the Chinese athletes who tested positive.

"Ban them all and never compete again," Guy wrote on X.

The head of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, meanwhile, said in a statement the timing of these latest revelations is disastrous for athletes.

"The recent allegations of doping cast a shadow of uncertainty as we head into the [Paris] Olympic and Paralympic cycle, challenging the very foundation of what fair competition stands for," said USOPC CEO Sarah Hirshland.

In an interview with NPR, USADA's Tygart questioned the plausibility of China's explanation that the positive TMZ tests were the result of an accidental exposure.

"Maybe part of the rationale [for a cover-up] was 'Nobody's going to believe this contamination theory, so we can't follow the rules because it's a crazy theory and no one would believe it,'" Tygart said.

Another Olympics, another high-profile doping scandal

Trimetazidine used by Russian figure skater Kamila Valieva ahead of the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing, a violation that ultimately led to Valieva receiving a four-year ban from international competition.

That case, too, involved a controversial delay in notification about Valieva's positive drug test, and threw the Beijing Games into turmoil.

Nine U.S. skaters were belatedly granted gold medals. Two years later they are still awaiting their formal award ceremony.

Critics now say WADA and the Chinese should have made the swimmers' tests known immediately to sports officials from other countries.

The behind-the-scenes investigation was first made public by the New York Times and a German news organization ARD, which aired a German-language television documentary about the case, and published a full list of Chinese athletes who allegedly tested positive.

The list includes star swimmers Zhang Yufei and Wang Shun, who went on to win gold medals in Tokyo. Both are expected to compete again in Paris Olympic Games this summer.

In an interview with the German news agency DPA, Germany's Interior Minister Nancy Faeser called for an investigation of the case.

"If confirmed that Chinese swimmers were able to become Olympic champions in Tokyo despite previous evidence of doping, that would be a disaster for world sport," Faeser said.

"This case is a slap in the face of all innocent and honest athletes."

In the countdown to Paris, disarray among drug testers

The Chinese Anti-Doping Agency, known as CHADA, also pushed back over the weekend against growing claims of wrongdoing.

In a statement published by the Chinese-government's Xinhua news agency, CHADA officials said their investigation found "extremely low" amounts of TMZ in Chinese swimmers.

"WADA agreed with our conclusion after thorough review," the organization said.

WADA, meanwhile, condemned its critics in a fiercely worded statement threatening legal action, calling accusations of wrong-doing "outrageous, completely false and defamatory."

"At all times, WADA acted in good faith, according to due process and following advice from external counsel," the organization said.

Tygart, with the United States Anti-Doping Agency, punched back on social media, saying it is "disappointing to see WADA stoop to threats and scare tactics when confronted with a blatant violation of the rules governing anti-doping."

New scandal, old suspicions

This scandal revives questions about international sport's ability to cope with countries accused of using performance-enhancing drugs systematically to gain unfair advantages at the Olympics and in other major competitions.

The International Olympic Committee has drawn criticism for allowing Russian athletes to continue competing at the Winter and Summer Games, albeit as neutrals without flying Russia's flag or playing the national anthem, despite evidence of systemic doping.

Russian gold medalist Evgeny Rylov, wearing a face covering, poses with his medal after the men's 200m backstroke during the Tokyo Olympic Games in 2021. His challengers questioned whether he competed with the aid of performance enhancing drugs.
Oli Scarff / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Russian gold medalist Evgeny Rylov, wearing a face covering, poses with his medal after the men's 200m backstroke during the Tokyo Olympic Games in 2021. His challengers questioned whether he competed with the aid of performance enhancing drugs.

Also at the Tokyo Games, questions were raised about Russian swimmer Evgeny Rylov, who won gold in the men's 200-meter backstroke.

"I don't know if [the race] was 100 percent clean," said U.S. swimmer Ryan Murphy, the silver medal winner, at a press conference afterwards in 2021, "and that's because of things that happened over the past."

China, too, has faced on-going questions about whether its teams use performance enhancing drugs systematically.

At the 2012 Summer Games in London, then-16-year-old swimmer Ye Shiwen of China obliterated the competition on the final lap of the women's 400m individual medley race.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Brian Mann
Brian Mann is NPR's first national addiction correspondent. He also covers breaking news in the U.S. and around the world.