Chinese Swimmers Had Previous Positive Tests for Banned Drug

After the revelation in April that 23 elite Chinese swimmers had tested positive for a banned substance months before the last Summer Olympic Games, China and the global antidoping authority vigorously defended their decisions to allow them to compete in the Games in 2021. The swimmers, they insisted, had not been doping.

But as they made those claims, China and the antidoping authority were both aware that three of those 23 swimmers had tested positive several years earlier for a different performance-enhancing drug and had escaped being publicly identified and suspended in that case as well, according to a secret report reviewed by The New York Times.

In both instances, China claimed that the swimmers had unwittingly ingested the banned substances, an explanation viewed with considerable skepticism by some antidoping experts. The two incidents add to longstanding suspicions among rival athletes about what they see as a pattern of Chinese doping and the unwillingness or inability of the global authority, the World Anti-Doping Agency, to deal with it.

The three Chinese athletes revealed to have tested positive earlier, in 2016 and 2017, were no ordinary swimmers: Two would go on to win gold medals at the Tokyo Olympic Games in 2021, and the third is now a world-record holder. All three are expected to contend for medals again at the Paris Games in July.

Antidoping experts say that if Chinese officials and WADA had abided by existing rules with both sets of positive tests, the athletes would have been publicly identified and subject to further scrutiny, and could have been disqualified from the 2021 Olympics, and possibly the Games that open in Paris next month.

“Athletes we have spoken to are appalled with the antidoping system and WADA,” said Rob Koehler, the director general of Global Athlete, a group working for athletes’ rights. “Athletes are expected to follow the antidoping rules to a T, but yet the very organization holding them accountable does not have to.”

In a statement to The New York Times, WADA confirmed that the three Chinese swimmers had tested positive for what it called “trace amounts” of a banned steroid, clenbuterol. It blamed the 2016 and 2017 cases on food contamination, which it labeled “pervasive.” It published its lengthy response online at the same time it was emailed to The Times.

“The issue of contamination is real and well-known by the antidoping community,” the WADA director general, Olivier Niggli, said.

“The athletes in question were three such cases,” he added. “They were elite level swimmers who were tested on a very frequent basis in a country where meat contamination with clenbuterol is widespread so it is hardly surprising that they could be among the hundreds of athletes who also tested positive for tiny amounts of the substance.”

WADA described the athletes’ levels of clenbuterol as “so low that they were between six and 50 times lower than the minimum reporting level.” But neither the agency nor Mr. Niggli offered any explanation for why the swimmers were not publicly identified for having any amount in their systems.

World Aquatics, the global governing body for swimming, also confirmed on Friday that the three Chinese swimmers had previously tested positive for clenbuterol.

“We can confirm that there were positive tests for clenbuterol in 2016 and 2017 that involved Chinese athletes,” the group said in a statement. The group, previously known as FINA, said it had found records of the positive tests in its archives from a period when it had a different management team.

“If any information comes to light which suggests that the cases should have been dealt with differently, then we will, of course, look at it very carefully,” the group said, adding that it expects to publish findings of an antidoping audit review in the next few weeks, including “clear guidelines on how similar cases should be handled in future.”

The details about the positive tests in 2016 and 2017 were included in a confidential report written by Chinese antidoping authorities that was used to clear the 23 swimmers in 2021, and given to WADA at the time.

The Chinese argued in the report that the 23 swimmers had been unknowingly contaminated with a heart medication that was somehow present in meals prepared for them at a domestic competition. That theory rested on the claim that two months after the positive tests, Chinese investigators had discovered trace amounts of the medication, trimetazidine, known as TMZ, in the kitchen of the hotel where the swimmers had stayed.

TMZ, which can help athletes increase stamina and endurance and hasten recovery times, is in a category of performance-enhancing drugs that comes with the harshest penalties.

To bolster the argument that contamination was a real possibility, the Chinese document cited other “mass incidents” in which 12 Chinese water polo players and 13 other athletes had been unwittingly contaminated with banned substances because of food they had eaten. Among those earlier cases, the Chinese said, were the incidents in 2016 and 2017 in which the three top swimmers had tested positive for clenbuterol.

But in citing those earlier cases, the Chinese only raised more questions about their history of dealing with positive tests.

Under established protocols for such tests at the time, even if the results were believed to have been caused by meat contamination, China and WADA would still have had to publicly identify the athletes and investigate the source of the contamination. There is no indication that those steps were followed in any of the cases documented by the Chinese.

Clenbuterol was for years popular among athletes because it can reduce weight and promote muscle growth. Because of its effectiveness in boosting athletic performance, WADA includes it in a category of drugs that come with the harshest penalties, including four-year bans from competition.

At the same time, it is also used in some parts of the world to promote growth in livestock. That has led to contamination cases involving athletes who eat meat from animals treated with it — a phenomenon that China’s antidoping agency detailed in a presentation that is still available on WADA’s website.

The Chinese antidoping agency did not respond to questions from The Times.

WADA — which is supposed to guard against countries that fail to police doping by their athletes — took Chinese officials at their word in 2021 that the 23 swimmers had done nothing wrong. It did not conduct its own investigation in China, and it allowed Chinada, the Chinese antidoping agency, to sidestep rules and processes that others are obligated to follow as it cleared the athletes.

The lack of action from WADA, which has cited coronavirus restrictions as an explanation, paved the way for China to send the 23 swimmers to the Summer Olympic Games in 2021, where nearly half of its team was made up of athletes who had tested positive for TMZ. At the Games, Chinese swimmers who had tested positive won medals in five events, including three golds.

After the revelations, WADA and swimming’s governing body both announced reviews of the handling of the cases. But that has only raised new concerns. WADA, already under fire from athletes and coaches, was forced to address claims that its handpicked prosecutor lacked independence. World Aquatics, meanwhile, faced accusations from a member of its own antidoping advisory group that it had been “inexplicably and forcibly shut out of the review.”

Amid the outcry, WADA officials have sought to defend themselves in a range of public and private briefings, including a conference call with journalists, a forum with hundreds of athletes and a hurriedly scheduled video call with its own board members.

On one such call, WADA’s general counsel, Ross Wenzel, looked directly into his computer camera and told board members that there had been no doping by the Chinese swimmers.

While it is unclear how much Mr. Wenzel knew about details in the Chinada report that had been shared with WADA, he and other agency officials have repeatedly supported their decision to clear the swimmers by pointing to a powerful statistic: None of the Chinese swimmers, Mr. Wenzel told the board members, had produced a doping positive result in the three years before the 2021 incident, despite being “subject to significant, if not to say massive, testing.”

What Mr. Wenzel did not share in those meetings in April and early May was the swimmers’ doping records before 2018. But WADA — which had been given the secret Chinese report in 2021 — had by then known for years that China had cleared the three swimmers with clenbuterol positives in 2016 and 2017.

In its report, China even identified the three athletes by name: Wang Shun, who at the Tokyo Olympics became the second Chinese man to win an individual gold medal in swimming; Qin Haiyang, the current world-record holder in the 200-meter men’s breaststroke; and Yang Junxuan, who was 14 or 15 at the time of her positive test in 2017 but went on to win gold and silver medals at the Tokyo Games.

In April, Yang set the Chinese national record in the women’s 100-meter freestyle.

As WADA noted in its statement on Friday, the issue of contamination positives for clenbuterol ultimately became so common that WADA changed its guidelines in 2019: The drug would still be banned and considered in the category that comes with the harshest penalties, but the threshold for a positive result was raised.

Still, under WADA’s rules and procedures at the time, athletes who claimed clenbuterol contamination were required to identify the source of the tainted food they had eaten and to obtain proof that it was indeed contaminated. This was a high bar to clear, and many athletes failed to do so — often leading to multiyear bans.

Even if the Chinese athletes were able to prove the contamination, however, under the rules in place in 2016 and 2017 their country’s antidoping agency was required by WADA’s code to publicly disclose that they had tested positive. And if the athlete had tested positive during a competition, their results were supposed to be stricken from the official records.

Yet in the case of the three Chinese swimmers, there is no indication that China’s antidoping agency followed those rules, nor is there anything in the public record documenting that the athletes tested positive.

According to China’s timeline, their positive tests in 2016 and 2017 occurred as the country was faced with an even earlier accusation of unpunished doping among its swimmers.

In 2016, The Times of London, citing whistle-blowers in China, reported that the Chinese authorities were covering up five positive doping tests because they wanted to avoid disclosing them before the trials for that year’s Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.

The day after the Times of London article was published, China’s antidoping agency publicly acknowledged that six of its swimmers had tested positive for banned drugs. Three of those positives had occurred six months earlier, in 2015, it said, and were for clenbuterol. China declined to identify the other substances or the names of any of the athletes.

At the time, WADA was engulfed in a separate scandal involving Russia’s state-backed doping program. It responded immediately, describing the allegations about Chinese positives as “very serious” and vowing to deal with the situation “head on.” Yet no known formal action was ever taken.

The discovery of even more hidden positives, and the prospect that some of the athletes involved will compete for medals at the Paris Olympic Games, is almost incomprehensible for other Olympians, said Mr. Koehler, of Global Athlete, who served as a deputy director of WADA until 2018.

“It will bring athletes’ confidence in the system to an all-time low, which I didn’t think was possible,” he said.

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