WADA laboratories in Nairobi, Kenya. GETTY IMAGES

The World Anti-Doping Agency has faced fierce backlash over its handling of positive test results from China's swimming team ahead of the 2021 Olympic Games. Accusations of a cover-up by national associations, "fake news" dismissals by China and denial of any double standard by the global watchdog ensued.

Public outcry, just 93 days before the Paris 2024 Olympics are set to celebrate their grandiose opening ceremony, keeps pouring on, due to the New York Times story and ARD broadcast last weekend, reporting that WADA had failed to police Chinese athletes, as well as their anti-doping authorities. 

What we know of the alleged doping revelations so far might seem a bit murky, but some basic facts are indisputable: nearly half of China’s swimming team tested positive for a banned substance just months before Tokyo 2021, but the athletes were still allowed to compete; China's Anti-Doping Agency concluded that the swimmers ingested the performance-enhancing prescription heart drug trimetazidine, known as TMZ, unwittingly in the lead-up to the pandemic-delayed Games and did not enforce sanctions; WADA declined to challenge the decision, allowing the alleged offenders to compete and collect up to half a dozen medals for the Asian superpower.

The Associated Press reported on Monday that the Chinese government contributed nearly $2 million above its annual requirements to WADA programmes both years prior to what the United States Anti-Doping Association has deemed "a potential cover-up situation," including one payment designed to strengthen the agency’s investigations and intelligence unit. AP listed donations of $993,000 (€927,000) in 2018 and $992,000 (€926,000) in 2019 that were made public at the time, along with similar contributions from countries including Egypt, India and Saudi Arabia.

India was set to host the 141st IOC Session and China hosted the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. Chinese IOC member Yang Yang was elected WADA vice president in 2019 and is currently serving her second three-year term. The Olympic movement and each IOC country split WADA's annual budget in half, with the Asian giant more than doubling its routine contribution of $430,000 for 2019.

In an online media conference call on Monday, WADA director general Olivier Niggli insisted that the donations were done "in total transparency" and assured he had "absolutely no problem with the relationship we have with China." What the organization did not publicly reveal in due time, however, was the information about the 23 positive tests, as swimmer Adam Peaty, Britain's triple Olympic gold medallist, pointed out. 

"Why not release this information at the time, who really benefits from the lack of transparency and secrecy?" Peaty posted on social media. Instead, the news was left for the press to unpack and the sporting world to digest.

Speaking of consumption, one of the biggest questions remains how the drug got into the swimmers' bodies in the first place. According to CHINADA, traces were found in the kitchen of a hotel where some, but not all, of the team members were staying for a domestic competition in late 2020-early 2021. 

Local officials reported their findings to WADA, but argued that the positive results registered an "extremely low concentration" of TMZ. At the time, the country's borders were effectively sealed off because of its strict pandemic policies, making any kind of independent on-site assessment impossible.

Yet the revelation has fuelled global outrage over why the swimmers were not at least immediately suspended. In 2014, China's three-time Olympic gold medallist Sun Yang served the first of his two doping bans after failing a test for TMZ. That positive test and ban did not emerge until after the swimmer had served his three-month suspension.

The drug was also among the cocktail of medication traces found in Kamila Valieva's system in 2022. Although the Russian Olympian claimed the cause of her failed test could have been due to contamination by her grandfather's crushed pills after receiving an artificial heart, the teenage figure skater received a four-year ban last January

WADA president Witold Banka described CAS' decision to uphold the organisation's appeal as "a win" back then. "For clean sport, and for athletes everywhere. Anyone who dopes children should go to jail. We encourage governments to consider criminalising the supply of performance-enhancing drugs to minors," he added.

Many questions remain regarding China's most recent doping scandal, but one fact is as clear as Olympic swimming water: it is not a victory. Not for WADA, not for anyone involved.