Global Athlete demands answers from WADA over Chinese doping case

Global Athlete, the international athlete-led pressure group, claims the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) "failed to abide by its own rules" by not provisionally suspending 23 Chinese swimmers who tested positive for the banned substance Trimetazidine (TMZ) in early 2021.

On Sunday, Global Athlete released a joint statement with independent anti-doping charity FairSport which strongly criticised WADA's actions. It follows reporting by the New York Times and ARD alleging WADA covered up the positive tests.

WADA and World Aquatics (then FINA) accepted an explanation from the Chinese Anti-Doping Agency (CHINADA) that the swimmers, including subsequent Tokyo 2020 Olympic gold medallists Zhang Yufei and Wang Shun, had consumed food contaminated by TMZ at a training camp after traces of the substance were found in a hotel kitchen.

The statement read, "Over the past two days, the New York Times and ARD exposed allegations that the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) covered up positive doping tests of the banned substance Trimetazidine (TMZ) from twenty-three Chinese swimmers in early 2021, prior to the Tokyo Summer Olympics.

"According to both reports, WADA failed to abide by its own rules - these athletes tested positive for a prohibited substance, and, per Article 7.4 of the World Anti-Doping Code, they should have received provisional suspensions and the results should have been made public. Instead, WADA allowed the athletes to continue competing and the test results to remain sealed. Consequently, several of the athletes went on to win medals at the Tokyo Olympics later that summer.

"WADA's two statements responding to these allegations, both released on 20 April 2024, beg more questions than they answer. Given the allegations in the reporting and WADA's statements on the matter, the following concerns remain unanswered: 

-Why were these twenty-three athletes not subject to provisional suspensions while investigations were ongoing?

-WADA claims it accepted no fault or negligence in these cases. Why does this finding exempt the results from mandatory public disclosure? 

-WADA claims that there were "no doping patterns with several athletes." How does WADA come to such a conclusion? Strict liability has led WADA to reject such arguments in the past. Why is this case different? 

-Russian figure skater Kamelia Valieva was found to have a small amount of TMZ in her system. Like CHINADA, RUSADA found no fault or negligence in the case and accepting Valieva's explanation that her grandfather used the substance and she had inadvertently ingested it. However, WADA vigorously appealed RUSADA's finding, resulting in a 4-year ban for Valieva. Why were these twenty-three athletes held to a different standard?

-TMZ is on the prohibited list. It is therefore irrelevant that WADA engaged scientific experts to see if low doses were performance-enhancing. Strict liability is the backbone of the World Anti-Doping Code. The presence of TMZ is prohibited - no matter how low the dosage. Why is WADA engaging experts to determine if a prohibited substance is performance-enhancing? 

Witold Banka, President of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). GETTY IMAGES
Witold Banka, President of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). GETTY IMAGES

-WADA stated that "in all transparency, we communicated the conclusions of our scientific review to internal and external investigators, including the International Testing Agency." How does sharing information confidentially qualify as transparent when the Code requires public disclosure?

-WADA states that its investigation department found no evidence of wrongdoing but provides no empirical evidence to support this finding. Furthermore, WADA admits that it could not pursue an investigation inside of China. Given WADA could not conduct an independent investigation, why did it accept CHINADA's explanation given that a finding of no fault is rare and the burden of proof is on the athlete?

-WADA claims that they offered to interview whistleblowers but that offer was not taken up. If the whistleblower is alleging that WADA covered up positive tests, why would the person agree to be interviewed by WADA?

"WADA must publicly release all evidence supporting their decision to close these cases. This evidence must be reviewed by an external body unrelated to the agency. Transparency builds confidence, and today, athletes have little confidence in the global anti-doping system.

"If these reports are accurate, and if WADA refuses to release the data publicly, this event represents another catastrophic failure of the global anti-doping system and underscores the need to dismantle the WADA structure to pave the way for a complete rebuild. For twenty-three positive tests in one sport from one country to occur without consequence and/or an investigation highlights the clear need to reconstruct WADA and its leadership, which have failed to uphold the rules they are tasked to enforce and protect."

Global Athlete and FairSport want answers from the WADA.
Global Athlete and FairSport want answers from the WADA.

The statement continued, "Since 2016, athletes have been demanding an overhaul of WADA. These demands have been met with superficial reforms that keep power in the hands of those more interested in protecting the brand than clean sport. Athletes can no longer accept band-aid solutions to a haemorrhaging anti-doping system. 

"The alleged failures exposed over the past few days undermine the entire global system of fair and clean sport. When leadership fails to comply with and enforce the rules, athletes are defrauded, their livelihoods are put at risk, and they lose the ability to succeed through talent, hard work and perseverance alone. If the allegations are true, WADA's top leadership has harmed current and future athletes, billions of fans, and the sporting community at large by diminishing the trustworthiness and value of international sport. 

"If true, WADA's alleged actions also harmed individual competitors in Tokyo. The athletes who tested positive should never have been allowed to compete. These athletes took medals from their competitors, denying them their moment on the Olympic podium and the sponsorship money and platform that come with Olympic success.

"Unfortunately, today's news is not unique. Since the Russian doping scandal in the early 2010s, WADA's leadership has repeatedly failed to protect clean athletes. Conflicts of interest have undermined WADA's effectiveness and, over the last several years, have led to unethical anti-doping decisions based on politics instead of principle.

"Additionally, some WADA members have engaged in outright corruption. For example, former WADA board member Tamas Ajan was expelled from international sport for covering up positive doping tests. And just last week, former board member Anders Besseberg was convicted of accepting bribes from Russia. Both Ajan and Besseberg were active WADA members when this corruption occurred. 

"Until WADA releases its files and proves it has acted properly, it is time for the system to be dismantled and rebuilt with an independent and professional leadership that affords power and equal voice to independent athlete representatives to ensure that the system serves and protects athletes, not sporting organisations or political agendas."

The United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) has also been fiercely critical with WADA threatening legal action against USADA CEO Travis Tygart. A WADA statement called Tygart's allegations "politically motivated and designed to undermine WADA's work to protect clean sport around the world".

WADA also revealed, "USADA contacted WADA in early 2023 based on a tip it had received about an alleged cover-up involving these cases but unfortunately was unable to provide any evidence whatsoever."