Aussies denied silver medal as WADA cleared in Olympics scandal around Chinese swimmers

An independent investigation has cleared the World Anti-Doping Agency of wrongdoing.

Hopes that Australia's 4x200m freestyle relay from the Tokyo Olympics would be elevated from a bronze to silver medal have gone up in smoke after an independent investigation cleared the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) of wrongdoing by allowing Chinese swimmers to compete after testing positive for a banned drug. In April it came to light that 23 Chinese swimmers tested positive for trimetazidine (TMZ) in the lead-up to the Olympics in 2021, but were still cleared to compete.

It was determined by Chinese anti-doping authorities that the athletes accidentally ingested the banned drug from tainted food at their team hotel during a domestic competition, and no action against them was warranted. WADA accepted that finding at the time and did not sanction the swimmers, 11 of whom will also compete at the Paris Olympics later this month.

Emma McKeon and Ariarne Titmus at the Tokyo Olympics.
There was some thought the Aussies could be elevated from bronze to silver due to the dramas engulfing the Chinese swimmers. Image: Getty

Athletes who fail doping tests are usually subject to bans of 2-4 years for a first offence and a lifetime ban for a second. Aussie swimmer Shayna Jack was infamously banned for four years after testing positive to ligandrol, before it was reduced to two years on appeal because she proved she took it unknowingly through a supplement. But she still missed the Tokyo Olympics as a result - in complete contrast to the Chinese swimmers.

China sent 30 athletes to the Tokyo Olympics as part of their swimming team, winning three gold medals and six overall. One of the golds came in the women's 4x200m freestyle relay, which saw the Australian team of Ariarne Titmus, Emma McKeon, Madi Wilson and Leah Neale take bronze despite being the overwhelming favourites.

Junxuan Yang, Muhan Tang, Yufei Zhang and Bingjie Li with their gold medals at the Tokyo Olympics.
Junxuan Yang, Muhan Tang, Yufei Zhang and Bingjie Li won gold for China in the women's 4x200m relay the Tokyo Olympics. (Photo by Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images)

There was a chain of thought that China could be stripped of the medals they won in Tokyo, which would have seen the Aussies elevated from silver to bronze in the relay and the USA get the gold. But that won't be happening, with an independent investigation overseen by retired Swiss prosecutor Eric Cottier ruling this week that WADA acted appropriately.

"There is nothing in the file - which is complete - to suggest that WADA showed favouritism or deference, or in any way favoured the 23 swimmers who tested positive for TMZ," the report says. WADA president Witold Banka welcomed the findings, reiterating claims that criticism of their handling of the case was due to "geopolitical" tensions.

Ariarne Titmus, Emma McKeon, Madison Wilson and Leah Neale.
The Aussie team of Ariarne Titmus, Emma McKeon, Madison Wilson and Leah Neale had to settle for bronze in a huge shock. (Photo by Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images)

Banka said there had been "disgusting allegations about a cover-up by some individuals in the US", and added that the agency was considering legal action against its critics. WADA's fiercest critic has been Travis Tygart - head of the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) - who has claimed there was a cover-up and that the body needed reforming.

"I am very sad that people tried to accuse us of really terrible things," said Banka. "If this case had happened in another country than China, it would not have brought attention."

Ariarne Titmus, Emma McKeon, Madi Wilson and Leah Neale at the Tokyo Olympics.
Ariarne Titmus, Emma McKeon, Madi Wilson and Leah Neale with their bronze medals. (Photo by ODD ANDERSEN/AFP via Getty Images)

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But Tygart said in a statement on Tuesday that "most of the critical questions" surrounding the case remain unanswered. The USADA chief claimed WADA "hand-picked" Cottier to head up the investigation, adding they "set the extremely limited scope of the investigation, preventing a meaningful review."

USADA also claimed the scientific basis and data that WADA used in determining the case involved contamination remained unclear. "From the beginning, our goal has been uncovering the truth and the facts of this situation on behalf of clean athletes," Tygart said. "Until WADA leadership shares that goal and stops spewing vitriol at any voice of dissent, there will be no trust in the global anti-doping system."

The US Department of Justice is also probing WADA's handling of the case. They have summoned the executive director of World Aquatics (WA), Brent Nowicki, to testify.

with agencies