China's Zhang Yufei during the 2022 Asian Games. GETTY IMAGES

The NY Times and ARD were the first to report on the World Anti-Doping Agency’s alleged mishandling of positive doping tests from Chinese swimmers before Tokyo 2021. Then came harsh pushback by the international governing body. Mounting uproar followed from USADA, Global Athlete and now Germany.

The news broke on Saturday and resonated with a bang around the sports world: nearly half of China’s swimming team was able to escape public scrutiny and continue to participate in international competition after being cleared of doping and enduring no further action from those charged with policing the sport. But after its initial response to the US newspaper’s story and German broadcaster’s documentary, stating that allegations by the United States Anti-Doping Agency “were completely unsubstantiated”, WADA still stands by its decision to let the 23 athletes compete in Tokyo, despite testing positive for a banned substance. 

"Having spoken at length with our science department, legal affairs department and intelligence investigations unit, what I can say right now is that at every stage, WADA followed the whole due process and diligently investigated every line of inquiry in this matter," WADA president Witold Banka reiterated on Monday, "If we had to do it over again now, we would do exactly the same thing," he added.

Athleten Deutschland was just the latest association to admonish the global governing body, as it issued its own statement, also on Monday, emphasising “the need for independent investigations and appropriate consequences”. Global Athlete, the international athlete-led pressure group, had previously claimed that WADA "failed to abide by its own rules" by not provisionally suspending the athletes who tested positive for Trimetazidine (TMZ), a heart medication registered in the World Anti-Doping Code’s prohibited list. China, who has a checkered past regarding doping allegations, stepped in by dismissing its latest scandal as 'fake news'.

Then the “appalled” Germans piled on. “If the allegations turn out to be true, WADA's apparently negligent behaviour would be a slap in the face for all clean athletes: They play by the rules. They accept strict liability as a cornerstone of the anti-doping fight and they naturally accept the rigors of the global doping control regime,” said Léa Krüger, member of the German Olympic Sports Association (DOSB). “Our sympathy goes first and foremost to those athletes who have lost out to the allegedly doped Chinese athletes in competitions, including in the context of the last Games in Tokyo. The lost life highlights and missed athletic and financial opportunities are irretrievable.”

According to The Times report, several of the suspected swimmers went on to win medals in Japan, including gold, and are now back in the fold, with Paris 2024 on the horizon. Two-time gold medalist Zhang Yufei would be among them. The newspaper also mentioned that the USADA called WADA's lack of action "a devastating stab in the back of clean athletes". The organisation's chief executive, Travis T. Tygart, claimed he had provided WADA with allegations of doping in Chinese swimming multiple times since 2020. 

Maximilian Klein, Director of Sports Policy at Athleten Deutschland, went a step further. “WADA's handling of the Russian state doping scandal has already led to a massive loss of trust among athletes, which still reverberates today,” he pinpointed. “The fact that WADA has apparently once again failed to deal with a suspected case on this scale is reopening old wounds. The latest revelations threaten to leave clean athletes completely resigned. Shortly before the Olympic and Paralympic Games, the credibility crisis of world sport and the fight against doping is intensifying once again.”

The global fight against doping is set up in a way that each country’s anti-doping organisation is charged with policing its own athletes, leaving WADA to step in whenever it feels that first line of defence has been breached and therefore needs to apply the necessary measures or sanctions. “We are confident that WADA’s independent Intelligence and Investigations Department followed up on all allegations received, which were not corroborated by any evidence; and thus, did not meet WADA threshold to open an investigation,” WADA insisted.

In its own statement, the German association asked WADA how could it “simply accept the Chinese investigation report, which was prepared by a ministry of the authoritarian regime, without initiating its own measures?” among other questions. It also expressed the need for pressing reforms in the organisation’s structure and pinpointed to the much-mentioned Kamila Valieva case as a blatant example of a WADA double standard. The Russian figure skater was slapped with a four-year suspension before the Beijing 2022 Winter Games, despite blaming contaminated food and testing for relatively low levels of the same substance as the 23 Chinese swimmers.