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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

US swimming stars assail anti-doping agency ahead of Olympics

Michael Phelps, the 23-time Olympic gold medalist swimmer, speaks during the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee Hearing “Examining Anti-Doping Measures in Advance of the 2024 Olympics,” on Capitol Hill in Washington on Tuesday, June 25, 2024. (Eric Lee/The New York Times)

By Jenny Vrentas and Michael S. Schmidt

Faced with demands from two of the United States’ most decorated Olympic swimmers, members of Congress expressed an openness earlier this week to withholding funding from the global regulator assigned to ensure an even playing field at the Olympics over its refusal to hold accountable Chinese swimmers who tested positive for a banned drug.

In testimony to a House subcommittee on Tuesday, Michael Phelps, the 23-time Olympic gold medalist, and Allison Schmitt, a four-time Olympic gold medalist, said it was unacceptable that the World Anti-Doping Agency, or WADA, had paved the way for the swimmers to win medals at the 2021 Games and compete at the coming ones in Paris.

Phelps and Schmitt, who were joined in their testimony by the top anti-doping official in the United States, said WADA’s inaction sent a message to professional athletes, amateurs and children that doping would be tolerated. Phelps said that such a lack of enforcement could ultimately doom the Olympics.

“Honestly, if we continue to let this slide any farther, the Olympic Games might not even be there,” Phelps said during the hearing in front of the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee.

The message from the two swimmers fell on receptive ears, with lawmakers from both parties suggesting that WADA could be at risk of losing its funding from the United States, which gives it more money than any other nation.

“Perhaps if they are not going to do the job, we shouldn’t even fund them,” said Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Va., the chair of the subcommittee.

The hearing marked one of the most significant steps U.S. officials have taken toward WADA since The New York Times reported in April that the agency and Chinese anti-doping authorities had declined to discipline 23 elite Chinese swimmers who tested positive for a banned drug in early 2021, allowing them to compete at the Games held in Tokyo that summer.

Chinese authorities said the positive tests were the result of unwitting contamination of the swimmers and involved tiny amounts of the banned substance, a finding that WADA accepted but that many anti-doping experts have questioned.

Leaders of the subcommittee rebuked Witold Banka, the president of WADA, for declining to testify. An empty chair and a microphone with his nameplate were set up next to the other witnesses.

Phelps, whose swimming career spanned five Olympic Games, told the committee that he did not believe he had ever competed in a clean field internationally. Schmitt was a member of the U.S. 4x200-meter freestyle relay team that finished second to China at the Tokyo Olympics. It was one of the five events in which Chinese swimmers who had tested positive for the banned substance months earlier won medals, including three golds.

“We raced hard,” Schmitt said of the American team in her testimony. “We followed every protocol and accepted our defeat with grace.”

With the revelations about the Chinese positive tests, she added, “many of us will be haunted by the podium finish that may have been impacted by doping.”

The scrutiny of its handling of the positive tests has left WADA facing a growing crisis headed into this summer’s Games.

Some American athletes who will be competing in Paris, including the two-time Olympic gold medalist Lilly King, have said they cannot be confident they will be competing on a fair playing field. Phelps, who like Schmitt is retired from competitive swimming, referred to WADA as “an organization that continues to prove that it is either incapable or unwilling to enforce its policies consistently around the world.”

Travis Tygart, the CEO of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency and an outspoken critic of WADA, recommended that the United States condition its funding of the agency, more than $3.6 million this year, saying that WADA should release the entire case file it has on the Chinese swimmers.

He also proposed in his written testimony that WADA, in an effort to prevent what happened with the Chinese swimmers from happening again, set up an independent expert committee to review cases in which athletes have tested positive but their countries have declined to discipline them. Under the current rules, even athletes who are not disciplined are supposed to have their positive test publicly disclosed.

In the case of the Chinese swimmers before the 2021 Games, no public announcement was made of the positive tests, the swimmers were not punished and they went on to compete at the Olympics without their rivals knowing there were questions about their use of a banned substance.

Tygart also called for an audit of the agency.

The agency has stood by its handling of the positive tests. It has appointed a former top Swiss prosecutor to investigate whether it did anything wrong or gave China favorable treatment, though American officials, other countries’ anti-doping authorities and athletes have questioned if this inquiry will be truly independent. The findings of that investigation are expected to be released before the Olympics.

The Times reported in April that the Chinese anti-doping authorities had claimed that the athletes should not be disciplined because trace amounts of the drug they tested positive for — a prescription heart medication known as trimetazidine, or TMZ — had been found in the kitchen of a hotel where they were staying for a meet in late 2020 and early 2021.

Chinese authorities concluded that the positive tests after the meet were therefore a result of the swimmers’ unwittingly ingesting food contaminated by TMZ, though it was not clear how the medication, which comes in a pill form, could have ended up in the meals of so many swimmers.

Despite rules that require public disclosure of contamination cases — even those in which the athletes are cleared of wrongdoing — the Chinese kept the positive tests secret. WADA, which is set up to be the backstop when countries fail to follow the rules, accepted the explanation from Chinese authorities, did not do an investigation on the ground and declined to try to discipline the athletes.

The revelation by the Times about the positive tests and WADA’s handling of them raised questions around the world about the agency tasked with keeping the Olympics clean.

The loudest outcry has come from the United States, which has seen intensifying competition from China in swimming. The Biden administration’s top drug official has demanded more accountability and transparency from WADA, members of Congress have urged the FBI to investigate the matter and lawmakers are weighing whether to continue providing funding to the agency.

In her prepared remarks submitted to the committee, Schmitt described the lengths American athletes go through to ensure compliance with anti-doping rules, from having to urinate in front of drug testers to avoiding something as simple as a topical cream to help with dry skin if they are not sure of the ingredients in it.

“I’ve even had a drug tester come sit next to me during a history exam in college because they show up unannounced,” Schmitt said.

Phelps first testified before Congress on this issue in 2017, in response to the doping scandal during which a former Russian official said publicly that the country had run a state-sponsored doping program that produced Olympic stars. Phelps said at Tuesday’s hearing that he was “incredulous” to be back addressing the same issue seven years later.

“It is clear to me that any attempts of reform at WADA have fallen short, and there are still deeply rooted systemic problems that prove to be detrimental to the integrity of international sports and athletes’ rights to fair competition,” Phelps said.

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