WADA clears itself in China doping case

The World Anti-Doping Agency on Tuesday said it did nothing wrong in deciding not to discipline elite Chinese swimmers who tested positive for a banned drug during preparations for last summer’s Olympics, even as new details emerged that raised questions about how the agency handled the decision.

A special prosecutor appointed by the anti-doping agency, known as WADA, to review the agency’s decision said he found the agency had made a “completely reasonable” decision not to impose sanctions on the swimmers and concluded that it had not given preferential treatment to China.

But in an appendix to the report, the prosecutor noted that two top scientists at the agency said they found it hard to believe China’s claim that the swimmers were accidentally poisoned.

WADA’s decision to clear itself of wrongdoing is unlikely to satisfy anti-doping experts and other critics — especially those in U.S.A — who asserted that the investigator, Eric Cottierhandpicked by agency officials and doping regulators, along with China, covered up positive tests in 2021.

The announcement comes five days after it was revealed that the Justice Department and the FBI had open a criminal investigation into how positive tests are handled. And it comes more than two months after The New York Times revealed that Top 23 Chinese Swimmers All tested positive for the same banned heart drug months before the 2021 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.

China’s anti-doping agency blamed a mass contamination incident for the positive tests, in which swimmers accidentally took the banned drug trimetazidine, known as TMZ, after eating food served at the hotel where they were staying for a competition.

Despite being unable to prove how or why the swimmers used the drug, WADA — which is supposed to be a backstop when countries fail to properly monitor their athletes — essentially accepted China’s explanation in refusing to conduct its own investigation or discipline the athletes.

The lack of punishment has paved the way for several Chinese swimmers to win medals — including three golds — at the Tokyo Games. Eleven of the 23 swimmers who tested positive are on the Chinese team preparing to compete at the Paris Games this month. Some are once again considered medal contenders.

Announcing the results of the prosecutor’s investigation, the head of WADA said the agency would now focus on targeting those who had defamed the agency.

“Now that the independent prosecutor has confirmed that there was no wrongdoing in relation to WADA’s handling of the case, the agency will consider, together with external legal counsel, what action can be taken against those who have made false and potentially defamatory allegations,” said WADA President Witold Banka.

He alleged that the reports and cover-up allegations “have seriously damaged WADA’s reputation and the trust that athletes and other stakeholders have in the agency and the global anti-doping system.”

Mr. Cottier’s investigation is limited in scope. It does not, for example, examine China’s initial handling of the cases and the information it relied on to exonerate its swimmers. And his report is only provisional; the final version will not be completed and released before the Paris Olympics, WADA said, even though some of the Chinese swimmers implicated in the doping scandal — including some people who have tested positive more than once not be punished — will compete in it.

WADA director general Olivier Niggli said the final report would be completed “in the coming weeks” and then discussed with the agency’s board in September. “We understand that the report will include recommendations to strengthen the global anti-doping system, which we welcome,” he said.

In a statement Tuesday, WADA released Mr. Cottier’s report and an appendix to the report, which includes details of internal discussions between two of WADA’s top scientists in 2021 as the agency grappled with how to handle positive tests in China.

According to the addendum, WADA’s chief scientist Olivier Rabin said he was skeptical about the scientific basis behind China’s claims of contamination and “that China did not find any TMZ users among kitchen or hotel staff”.

WADA’s top scientist responsible for the banned substances list, Irene Mazzoni, said she had “difficulty believing in contamination given the minimal doses found in the kitchen” where the drug was discovered, according to the report.

But both scientists said they had no choice but to accept WADA’s decision because they could not refute China’s claims.

According to the report, Mr. Rabin “saw no other solution than to accept, even if he remained skeptical about the pollution situation as described by the Chinese authorities.”

The selection of Mr. Cottier to conduct the investigation has attracted criticism from the start. The former attorney general of Vaud, a Swiss region that has long been a hub for international sport as the home of several governing bodies, has close ties to WADA and Olympic officials. He was tapped to lead the investigation by the chief auditor of WADA’s intelligence and investigations division at the time the Chinese swimmers tested positive.

The inspector, Jacques Antenen, served as Vaud’s police chief under Mr. Cottier when he was Vaud’s attorney general. In a phone interview on May 3, Mr. Antenen said he had contacted Mr. Niggli, WADA’s top administrator, in the days after the positive tests were revealed to suggest that Mr. Cottier might be a good choice to lead any investigation.

“I’m not recommending him; I’m just saying if you need someone, he’s a good choice,” said Mr. Antenen. He said he did not know whether others had been considered for the role.

WADA reacted angrily when questions about Mr Cottier’s independence were first raised, saying “attempts to discredit a respected expert as soon as he begins his work are increasingly ridiculous and designed to undermine the process”.


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