An Update on Those Chinese Swimmers Who Tested Positive for Doping

P Photo/Petr David Josek

In April the NY Times revealed that a group of elite Chinese swimmers had tested positive for a banned substance, but for reasons that still aren't clear the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) didn't follow normal procedures and announce the findings and the names of those involved.


The incident happened in early 2021 about 7 months before the start of the summer Olympics which had been delayed a year because of the pandemic. In all, 23 Chinese swimmers tested positive for a banned heart drug called TMZ. China's doping agency came up with an unconvincing explanation for how this happened.

In their report, Chinese investigators described how many of the country’s best swimmers were staying at the same hotel for a domestic meet in the final days of 2020 and the first days of 2021. Two months after the swimmers tested positive for the banned substance — a prescription heart drug that can enhance performance — Chinese investigators reported finding trace amounts of the substance in the hotel’s kitchen.

Their report offered no evidence of how the drug got there, despite enlisting the help of China’s national police. But they concluded that the swimmers had unwittingly ingested it in small amounts.

For some reason, WADA decided to accept this explanation saying there was no proof that it didn't happen as China claimed. And this is where things get even more sketchy. In cases like this, the country involved is supposed to make a public announcement naming the athletes involved. China never did. Several of the athletes who tested positive moved on to the Olympics and won five medals, including three gold medals. The US anti-doping agency accused China of cheating and accused WADA of helping them cover it up. In response, WADA denied doing anything wrong and threatened to sue the NY Times and the US anti-doping agency.


Today the Times has a follow up which makes the behavior of WADA look even more shady. In the wake of the earlier report, WADA had used a very specific talking point to defend the Chinese athletes..

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...

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.”

This claim about no positive results in the three previous years referred to the years 2018-2020. But here's the catch, WADA knew that three of the athletes who tested positive in 2021 had tested positive before in 2016 and 2017. This information was included in a confidential report sent to WADA by the Chinese doping agency. And once again, it seems WADA did not require China to announce the positive tests at the time.

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.


And just as happened in 2021, it seems that back in 2016 and 2017 WADA decided China did not have to abide by the rules which required governments to make positive tests public.

...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.

Over and over you get the impression that WADA is doing its best to protect China. As a previous story noted, their response was entirely different when a Russian athlete tested positive for the same drug and offered, essentially, the same explanation about accidental contamination.

When Russia’s antidoping body cleared the teenage skater Kamila Valieva for testing positive for TMZ in 2022, WADA appealed its finding. It demanded that the Court of Arbitration for Sport, the authority that adjudicates disputes in global sports, reject Russia’s decision to clear Valieva, who was then still competing in the Winter Olympics in Beijing.

Valieva said she had been an unwitting victim of contamination, the same explanation that China provided for its swimmers. An appeal committee at Russia’s antidoping agency even accepted the claim that Valieva had tracked the source of the low concentration of the TMZ in her system to a strawberry dessert prepared for her by her grandfather, who said he had a prescription for the medication. The court summarily dismissed the claim as lacking credibility.


My point isn't to defend Russian athletes, who have a long history of doping, but to point out that Chinese athletes were given a pass, more than one in fact. All of this seems extremely suspicious.

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