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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

WADA appoints special prosecutor in Chinese doping case



Chinese swimmer Zhang Yufei

By Michael S. Schmidt and Tariq Panja


The World Anti-Doping Agency late last week appointed a special prosecutor to review how 23 Chinese swimmers who tested positive for a banned drug were allowed to avoid public scrutiny and compete at the 2021 Olympics, where they won gold medals and set records.


The decision to appoint the special prosecutor, Eric Cottier of Switzerland, came amid an outcry from top government officials, anti-doping experts and authorities, and athletes over the way Chinese anti-doping officials and the global regulator, known as WADA, handled the positives.


WADA cast the move as one it had to make in response to “the damaging and baseless allegations that are being leveled” against the agency since The New York Times on April 20 revealed how the Chinese anti-doping agency, known as Chinada, and WADA declined to discipline or identify the 23 swimmers.


“WADA’s integrity and reputation is under attack,” the WADA president, Witold Banka, said in a statement. “In the past few days, WADA has been unfairly accused of bias in favor of China by not appealing the Chinada case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. We continue to reject the false accusations and we are pleased to be able to put these questions into the hands of an experienced, respected and independent prosecutor.”


As part of the review, WADA said Thursday, Cottier — who was the attorney general of a canton in Switzerland for 17 years before he stepped down in 2022 — will be given “full and unfettered access to all of WADA’s files and documents related to this matter.”


Among the questions WADA has tasked Cottier with answering is whether the decision by Chinada to clear the athletes of doping, and WADA’s decision not to intervene, was “a reasonable one.” WADA also asked the prosecutor to examine if China received preferential treatment from WADA.


Thursday’s announcement came three days after Banka and other top WADA officials defended the organization’s handling of the China case.


“If we had to do it over again now,” Banka declared last Monday, “we would do exactly the same thing.”


That same day, the Biden administration’s top drug official, who is also a member of WADA’s executive board, called for an independent investigator and said that he planned to raise the issue at a meeting of sports ministers and anti-doping officials in Washington on Thursday and Friday.


The official, Rahul Gupta, who is the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, on Thursday praised the appointment of the special prosecutor.


“Today’s announcement is an important first step in addressing the recent doping allegations,” Dr. Gupta said. “Every athlete in America and around the world deserves competition that is transparent, fair, and free from doping. International anti-doping authorities have a duty to assure that all athletes have a level playing field and confidence in the system established to preserve and promote clean sport.”


Within minutes of WADA’s announcement of a special prosecutor, Travis T. Tygart, the head of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, who has been among the biggest critics of the regulator’s handling of the Chinese case, criticized its motives.


“It’s hard to view this as anything other than a whitewash given the ongoing threats and attacks,” Tygart said in a statement to the Times. “Clearly it’s precooked. WADA’s statement exemplifies the problem with the current system. WADA does not follow its own rules, and then it gets to handpick an attorney from its own backyard and also sets the scope of that hand-picked attorney’s review.”


Concern about the positive tests has only grown since details of the cases were made public on April 20. Anti-doping authorities in Britain and Australia had already called for an independent review, echoing demands from national swimming governing bodies, athletes and government officials around the world.


“Aquatics GB believes that every athlete is entitled to compete on a level playing field — and that means a commitment to clean sport,” British swimming’s governing body said in a statement. “Delivery against this commitment requires a testing process that is robust, transparent and consistently applied.”


WADA had tried to tame some of the fallout of the China revelations Monday by hosting a news conference. That effort, which lasted nearly two hours, failed to quiet the outrage, however.


And in acknowledging that it had not followed its own procedures in the case, WADA raised more questions about whether the Chinese were treated differently from athletes in other nations facing similar accusations. The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency even produced a detailed rebuttal to claims made in the news conference, an emphatic sign that the case — and WADA’s handling of it — would not be allowed to disappear quietly.

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