‘Worse than Russia’: How China doping scandal left Wada fighting for its survival

The Chinese and the Olympic flag wave
Twenty three Chinese swimmers failed drug tests before the Tokyo Olympics - AP/Petr David Josek

With 10 weeks until the first race at Centre Aquatique Olympique, the swimmers have nagging doubts that they are diving off the same starting blocks.

A mood of paranoia grips pool locker rooms and governing body offices alike after revelations last month that China were quietly spared a ban in 2021.

At the latest count, at least nine of those 23 athletes who failed tests but were spared of blame three years ago are now qualified, fit and confirmed to compete for medals in July.

The embattled World Anti-Doping Agency holds an extraordinary meeting this Friday to attempt to convince a sceptical sporting community that it acted rigorously in ruling out foul play by China in 2021.

But a sense of deep suspicion has already taken root over Wada’s apparent secrecy in accepting “strong indicators” that 23 positive tests for heart medication trimetazidine [TMZ] – which can enhance performance and moves quickly through the body – were a “case of group contamination”.

The experts remain as unconvinced as ever. “This is worse in people’s eyes, certainly among the athletes we have spoken to, than previous Russia controversies,” Travis Tygart, chief executive of the United States Anti-Doping Agency, tells Telegraph Sport.

Travis Tygart, chief executive of the United States Anti-Doping Agency
Travis Tygart, chief executive of the United States Anti-Doping Agency - AP/Susan Walsh

Athletes, meanwhile, talk on WhatsApp groups of potentially breaking podium protest ban rules in July, but they and national governing bodies hope concerns can be tackled head-on before then.

China’s Anti-Doping Agency (Chinada) had first determined that the athletes had unintentionally ingested the substance, potentially via a kitchen preparing food for the team.

Regardless of whether such claims are justified, it is the perception of a lack of transparency that is proving hardest to explain away for Wada, not least because it only came to light this April after investigations by the New York Times and Germany’s ARD network.

The timing of the case only adds to the suspicion raised by Tygart that the case was “swept under the carpet”. The 23 were quickly cleared for the Tokyo Games. China then hosted the Winter Olympics the following February.

“Unprecedented levels of concern” were identified by one insider attending an emergency meeting of the Unesco International Convention against Doping in Sport. That same group, which effectively has responsibility for governments formally recognising Wada, is now leading demands for greater transparency. “The current situation illustrates the gaps in international sport governance and highlights its complexity and the need for open and transparent dialogue between all concerned parties,” says the convention. “Governments need to identify the ways and means to address these gaps. Moving forward, it is crucial that governments, Wada, athletes, sports federations, and other concerned parties work together to strengthen the principles of impartiality and universality for sport values, ethics, and integrity. This includes reviewing decision-making processes and improving communication.”

‘We need answers’

Governments and their regulatory bodies are also now weighing in. The UK Anti-Doping has yet to openly criticise Wada but its officials are known to have been on a call and expressed support for other more outspoken figures. The White House’s top drug official, Dr Rahul Gupta, is among those willing to put his head above the parapet. “Let me underscore the extreme concern I have been hearing directly from American athletes and their representatives on this issue,” he wrote in a letter to Wada last week. “As I have shared with you, the athletes have expressed they are heading into the Olympic and Paralympic Games with serious concerns about whether the playing field is level and the competition fair.”

With Chris Van Hollen, the US senator in charge of the subcommittee that provides funding to Wada, quoted by the New York Times as adding that “we need answers”, Wada then quickly confirmed a meeting of its foundation board. The embattled organisation will staunchly defend its record on Friday, having brought in a local prosecutor near its Swiss base to review its handling of the case.

“Wada has been accused of very serious wrongdoing yet not a shred of evidence has been produced to support those allegations,” Wada maintain. “At every stage, Wada followed all due process and diligently investigated every lead and line of enquiry in this matter. Wada carefully reviewed Chinada’s decision from every perspective, interrogating every piece of evidence and gathering further information as appropriate. As part of its review, Wada collected additional, unpublished scientific information on TMZ and consulted with independent scientific experts to test the contamination theory. The irrefutable scientific evidence in this case points clearly towards a scenario of environmental contamination, not doping.”

However, for Tygart and four other senior anti-doping officials, speaking privately to Telegraph Sport, the firm words will do little to ease growing concerns about the credibility of clean competition worldwide.

Whispers of a potential existential threat facing Wada have upped the ante with just two months to spare ahead of the Games. “We 1,000 per cent support a strong and independent watchdog, but that’s not what we have right now,” says Tygart. “It’s too influenced by sport, and so there has to be accountability and a restructure to make it the global watchdog that it truly needs to be to do the job of protecting clean athletes’ rights.”

The sporting influence and potential political interference, he says, “is entirely too high”. “They’ve created a political bureaucratic regime that does what’s in the best interests of sport and not in the best interests of clean athletes, particularly in tough cases, or situations like Russia and now as we see with these Chinese cases,” he adds. “The overregulation to give the appearance of success has got to be stripped down.”

Tygart, best known for his role in exposing Lance Armstrong’s massive doping operation, suggests the organisation has lost its way over the course of a decade. “We want to bring Wada back to what it once was under Jacques Rogge’s presidency of the IOC and Dick Pound and John Fahey, at Wada, where it was truly an independent organisation that acted in the best interest of clean athletes,” he added.

World Anti-Doping Agency Chairman Dick Pound in 2002
Many want Wada to revert back to how it was under Dick Pound - AP/Elaine Thompson

Reform, it seems, would be welcomed by British Olympic medal winners past and present. “As an athlete you want to be treated fairly and [have] full transparency and make sure that in those cases those results [positive test] are not hidden and they’re not put under secrecy,” Adam Peaty, the record-breaking breastroke champion said last month. “A lot of swimmers are very disappointed in Wada.”

Sharron Davies, meanwhile, says a growing number of swimmers on the frontline feel “very let down and they have very little faith in Wada”. She remembers acutely the sense of powerlessness she felt in 1980 after being deprived of a gold medal by a state-sponsored doper. “It was very obvious,” says Davies, recalling her emotions before facing East German doper Petra Schneider. “Incredibly disheartening, frustrating and powerless.”

Almost half a century on, she says the latest generation of medal hopes deserve reassurances that they are competing on a level playing field. “Unfortunately both China and Russia pump huge sums of money into international sport enabling a fabulous lifestyle for those that run sport. My hope is that one day sporting organisations like the IOC centre the athlete not their bank balances.”

Whatever the outcome on Friday, there is little hope that the crisis will not remain a major talking point in Paris. World Aquatics, the global swimming body formerly known as Fina, is also facing scrutiny, having been invited to review the evidence supplied by Chinada. The Times newspaper reports Fina decided to share the evidence with only the chairman of its Doping Control Review Board, Dr Jordi Segura, and not the other members.

However, the most awkward scenes of all for Wada will be the likes of Wang Shun, who qualified last month despite being among the 23 failed tests, taking on Britain’s Duncan Scott and others. If there are any more sniffs of potential foul play, sport’s anti-doping authority will be struggling to keep its head above those Olympic waters.