'Betrayed by the system.' Chinese swimmers' positive tests raise questions before 2024 Games

With two months to go until the U.S. Olympic swimming trials, and three months to go until the 2024 Olympic Games, the question hanging over the international swimming community isn’t how many medals America’s Katie Ledecky or France’s Leon Marchand will win in Paris, it’s this:

How did a banned prescription heart medicine that is available only in pill form somehow get spread around a hotel kitchen in such a way to be ingested in some manner by 23 elite Chinese swimmers, all of whom had been warned for years not to ingest anything they don’t trust?

Do we believe that really happened? And if we don’t believe that really happened, then we are watching in real time as the worst doping scandal in swimming in at least a generation envelopes a sport that will dominate the first week of the Summer Games.

This weekend, The New York Times and German public broadcaster ARD reported that those 23 Chinese swimmers all tested positive for the exact same banned substance — trimetazidine (TMZ), which is the drug Russian figure skater Kamila Valieva was found to have taken — but were allowed to continue to compete and in some cases win medals at the 2021 Tokyo Olympic Games.

The delegation from China marches during the opening ceremony for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Olympic Stadium. The Games were held in 2021 due to the pandemic.
The delegation from China marches during the opening ceremony for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Olympic Stadium. The Games were held in 2021 due to the pandemic.

How is that possible? Because the World Anti-Doping Agency clearly bought the Chinese story, focusing on the small amounts of the drug that the swimmers apparently ingested, even as it fought for months to bring Valieva to justice when she went with a strikingly similar excuse.

In a story that is still ongoing more than two years after the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, the Russian teenager said she was exposed to her grandfather’s TMZ when the drug made its way into a strawberry dessert that he made and she ate.

WADA didn’t buy it — honestly, who would? — and neither did the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which banned Valieva for four years, disqualifying her Olympic results.

We will be comparing and contrasting these two cases for some time, and Valieva and the Russians might too. They have appealed her punishment, and one wonders if WADA’s decision in the Chinese case might play to her advantage now.

One key question has emerged: Did WADA share with the Valieva defense team the information that in a similar situation (the 23 Chinese swimmers), WADA kept the positive drug tests secret from the public and did not suspend or disqualify the swimmers?

So far no one in a position of authority has been willing to answer that question.

Another issue is percolating: Is the decision to neither suspend nor disqualify the Chinese swimmers final, or is there an opportunity for the case to be reopened?

“The statute of limitations has not run out,” U.S. Anti-Doping Agency CEO Travis Tygart said in a text message Sunday. “Certainly if any new evidence is found after an actual, robust investigation — or fraud in the defense of the Chinese swimmers is found — then yes, it could be easily prosecuted. So it can and should be investigated and prosecuted by an independent prosecutor to get some justice for clean athletes, whatever that might end up being.”

Also on Sunday, German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser called for an independent investigation into the case.

One of the reasons this story resonates as it does throughout the swimming and Olympic world is that doping and international swimming sadly go back a long way. Most notably, East Germany ruined the lives of many of its female swimmers from the 1960s through the 1980s by forcing them to take steroids for years while stealing Olympic and world medals from hundreds of clean swimmers around the world.

Now, another scandal.

Said Tygart: “Our hearts ache for the athletes from the countries who were impacted by this potential cover-up and who may have lost podium moments, financial opportunities, and memories with family that can never be replaced. They have been deeply and painfully betrayed by the system. All of those with dirty hands in burying positive tests and suppressing the voices of courageous whistleblowers must be held accountable to the fullest extent of the rules and law.”

China and WADA thought this case was over and done with. The swimming world knows, however, that this might only be the beginning.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 2024 Paris Olympics: Chinese swimming scandal raises WADA questions