A Chinese doping scandal rocks Olympic swimming and clean sport

Silver medallists China's Xu Jiayu, China's Yan Zibei, China's Zhang Yufei and China's Yang Junxuan pose with their medals and a flag after the final of the mixed 4x100m medley relay swimming event during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre in Tokyo on July 31, 2021. (Photo by Jonathan NACKSTRAND / AFP) (Photo by JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP via Getty Images)
A dozen Chinese swimmers who competed at the Tokyo Olympics, including some who won medals, tested positive for a banned substance eight months prior to the Games. (Photo by JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP via Getty Images)

A potentially explosive doping scandal rocked Olympic swimming Saturday after revelations that 23 Chinese swimmers, including gold medalists and world record-setters, tested positive for a banned substance in 2021 and were never punished.

The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), after three years of silence, acknowledged the positive tests, but sided with China’s anti-doping body, which claimed that all 23 swimmers unknowingly ingested small amounts of the substance and were therefore innocent.

The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), however, accused WADA and its Chinese counterpart of “secretly [sweeping] these positives under the carpet”; and investigations by The New York Times and German broadcaster ARD raised questions about WADA’s handling of the matter and suspicions of a cover-up.

Travis Tygart, the USADA CEO, called the findings "crushing" and "devastating," and said in a strongly worded statement that clean athletes "have been deeply and painfully betrayed by the system."

WADA fired back, and threatened legal action in response to what it labelled "misleading and potentially defamatory media coverage." (China's anti-doping authority, CHINADA, also called the reports "misleading.")

Details of the Chinese doping scandal

The positive tests all stemmed from a domestic meet at which China's top swimmers gathered eight months prior to the 2021 Tokyo Olympics.

At the meet in Shijiazhuang, per the Times, CHINADA administered 60 tests on 39 swimmers in total; 28 of the 60 samples, from 23 different swimmers, contained traces of trimetazidine, commonly known as TMZ, the same heart medication at the center of Russian figure skater Kamila Valieva's case.

More than two months later, on March 15, 2021, CHINADA privately reported the positives, but asked swimming's world governing body to "keep athletes’ information and the case strictly confidential." In that same March 15 email — which was obtained and reported by the Times — a top CHINADA official claimed that an “initial review and preliminary investigation shows that these are not normal [positives].”

Three months after that, in June, one month before the Tokyo Games, CHINADA told WADA that the 23 swimmers had tested positive "after inadvertently being exposed to the substance through contamination," per WADA. Specifically, per the Times and ARD, CHINADA produced a 61-page report, in which it said that China's Ministry of Public Security, a government agency, had investigated and found traces of TMZ in vents, spice containers and sink drains in the kitchen of the Huayang Holiday Hotel, where swimmers had stayed during the meet in question.

WADA says it "carefully reviewed the decision," "collected additional, unpublished scientific information on TMZ and consulted with independent scientific experts to test the contamination theory." But it never sent its own scientists or investigators to China; doing so "was not possible," WADA said in its Saturday statement, due to "extreme" COVID-19-related restrictions.

Ultimately, WADA "concluded that it was not in a position to disprove the possibility that contamination was the source of TMZ," the agency said. And CHINADA's explanation, WADA said, "was compatible with the analytical data in the file." So it cleared all 23 swimmers, and never publicly disclosed the positive tests.

Which Chinese swimmers tested positive?

Of the 23 swimmers, 13 went on to compete at the Tokyo Olympics, according to ARD. Four won medals, including three golds. (ARD published all 23 names.)

Among those who tested positive, according to ARD and the Times, were:

  • Zhang Yufei, a then-23-year-old star who won gold in the 200-meter butterfly and silver in the 100 butterfly, and contributed to two medal-winning relays — one of which set a world record.

  • Wang Shun, a veteran who won the 200-meter individual medley, and became the second Chinese male swimmer to win an individual Olympic gold.

  • Qin Haiyang, who did not medal in Tokyo, but set a world record in 2023 in the 200-meter breaststroke.

China's most famous swimmer, Sun Yang, was not among the 23; he was, and still is, serving a yearslong ban in a separate doping case. (In a third unrelated case, in 2014, Sun was also banned for three months after a positive test for TMZ.)

U.S. authorities clash with WADA

In subsequent months and years, whistleblowers raised concerns to the International Testing Agency (ITA) and USADA.

The ITA — another Olympics-adjacent anti-doping body created in the aftermath of Russia's state-sponsored doping scheme — forwarded those concerns to WADA in 2022, and initiated its own investigation, which remains ongoing.

USADA, in 2023, also relayed a tip that TMZ positives had been hidden in China. But WADA declined to re-investigate. It said Saturday that USADA's "information was clearly erroneous." It noted that USADA had also contacted WADA in 2020 "with respect to allegations (again from an unspecified source) of doping cover-ups within Chinese swimming. These allegations," WADA said, "were (again) entirely unsubstantiated and WADA advised that the threshold to open an investigation was not met."

Tygart, the USADA CEO, took exception with the tone of WADA's statement, and released a second statement Saturday. "It is disappointing to see WADA stoop to threats and scare tactics when confronted with a blatant violation of the rules governing anti-doping," he said.

"When you blow away their rhetoric, the facts remain as have been reported: WADA failed to provisionally suspend the athletes, disqualify results, and publicly disclose the positives," Tygart continued. "These are egregious failures, even if you buy their story that this was contamination and a potent drug ‘magically appeared’ in a kitchen and led to 23 positive tests of elite Chinese swimmers."

China case deepens anti-doping distrust

Tygart, athletes and other clean-sport advocates pounced on WADA's choice to keep the positives quiet — until three years later, and only after journalists came calling.

"Why not release this information at the time," British swimmer Adam Peaty asked on X. "Who really benefits from the lack of transparency and secrecy?"

"Complete lack of transparency by WADA / CHINADA and inconsistent handling of positive tests is appaling," Greg Meehan, head coach of USA Swimming's 2021 women's Olympic team, wrote on X. (He also pointed out that the "timing of these events coinciding with the fact that Beijing was about to host the 2022 Winter Olympic Games is no coincidence.")

Typically, anti-doping protocols call for disclosure, provisional suspension and further investigation. WADA followed those protocols less than a year later during the 2022 Winter Olympics, when Valieva tested positive for the same drug, and her saga unraveled in the public eye.

Valieva, like the Chinese, argued unwitting ingestion. Like the Chinese, Russia's anti-doping body sided with Valieva and cleared her. In that case, however, WADA fought back, appealed the Russian decision, and thoroughly investigated. Two years later, the Court of Arbitration for Sport handed Valieva a four-year ban.

In exceptional circumstances, public disclosure isn't required — but those circumstances usually include proof of contamination. In the Chinese case, WADA did not have proof of contamination; it simply "was not in a position to disprove the possibility," as it said.

Its excuse for not carrying out its own on-the-ground investigation in 2021 was legitimate. It aligned with oft-discussed fears that COVID-related restrictions would leave the global anti-doping apparatus susceptible to exploitation. The system relies on "in-competition" testing at international events, many of which were canceled during the pandemic; and on national anti-doping agencies, which WADA struggled to police due to travel bans.

WADA's resistance to the pursuit of more evidence, though, has blended with its opacity to feed suspicion and distrust.

The FBI, on the other hand, is reportedly interested. The U.S. law enforcement agency, according to the Times, has learned about the case and taken steps to gather more information. Under the 2019 Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act, the U.S. Department of Justice has the power to prosecute foreigners who corrupt international sports via doping.

Whether or not U.S. authorities pursue the case, it will now loom over the 2024 Paris Olympics, which begin July 26, and at which Zhang and others were expected to contend for more medals.

"We are deeply disheartened to read these reports," Sarah Hirshland, CEO of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, said in a statement Saturday. "All athletes, both in the United States and around the world, deserve to have confidence in the integrity and fairness of their competitions. The recent allegations of doping cast a shadow of uncertainty as we head into the Olympic and Paralympic cycle, challenging the very foundation of what fair competition stands for."