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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Doping regulator knew of previous positive tests by Chinese swimmers



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. (PEXELS)

By Michael S. Schmidt and Tariq Panja


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 anti-doping 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 anti-doping 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 anti-doping experts. The two incidents add to long-standing 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.


Anti-doping 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 anti-doping system and WADA,” said Rob Koehler, the director general of Global Athlete, a group working for athletes’ rights. “Athletes are expected to follow the anti-doping 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 is 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 anti-doping community,” said the WADA director-general, Olivier Niggli.


“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 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 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 anti-doping audit review in the next few weeks, including “clear guidelines on how similar cases should be handled in future.”

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