The World Anti-Doping Agency, WADA, in the middle of a storm three months before the Paris Summer Olympics

Irregularities, incompetence, leniency with China: for several days, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) has found itself at the heart of a scandal that is shaking the world of anti-doping, accused of having covered up the positive tests of 23 Chinese swimmers in 2021.

This affair, a “cluster bomb” triggered three months before the Paris Olympics, could endanger the entire system and architecture of global anti-doping. “No one has been able to produce evidence that would allow successful prosecutions,” he told AFP on Tuesday, while the Chinese government rejected “false” allegations.

Why weren’t the Chinese swimmers suspended?

Normally, when an athlete tests positive for a banned substance, they are automatically suspended, an automaticity that WADA imposes on anti-doping agencies. However, the Chinese anti-doping agency CHINADA did not suspend the 23 swimmers who tested positive at the beginning of 2021 for trimetazidine. However, it is an “unspecified” substance, banned since 2014 on the grounds that it improves blood circulation, already detected in Chinese swimmer Sun Yang and young Russian skater Kamila Valieva.

WADA, which claims to have “acted with due diligence and in accordance with procedure”, tried to explain this incongruity on Monday: a clause – almost never used – makes it possible not to automatically suspend the athlete if he is interviewed prior to any sanction. “Except that there, the swimmers concerned could not even be interviewed, the Chinese agency having assured that the restrictions linked to COVID did not allow it,” analyzes a source within French anti-doping. Why did CHINADA investigators not hear the athletes by videoconference in this case? The question remains.

An investigation in question

The way CHINADA presented its investigation “does not fit at all with the rules usually imposed by WADA,” according to an anti-doping expert who requested anonymity. When an athlete is tested with a prohibited substance in the body, it is up to him to provide evidence of possible accidental contamination and the absence of intention to doping.

In the case of the Chinese swimmers, the investigation was carried out by the Ministry of Public Security, attached to the Chinese secret services, according to the German television channel ARD, which revealed the affair on Saturday with the New York Times. And then it was the Chinese agency which wrote a report submitted in March 2021 to WADA, concluding that there was food contamination in the food provided by the hotel where the swimmers resided.

“It’s quite lunar: it’s a bit like if a police officer checks you for speeding and, at the same time, he puts on a lawyer’s robe to defend you,” summarizes another source.

Why did WADA validate the Chinese procedure?

This is the missing link in this matter. “No one understands why WADA didn’t do or say anything,” summarizes the expert. The role of WADA, presented as the global anti-doping policeman, consists in particular of monitoring the legality of the procedures of anti-doping agencies. And she is especially known for being rather intransigent when it comes to respecting the rules. “As soon as a country leaves the framework imposed by WADA, it normally takes a beating,” summarizes a source within French anti-doping.

In the case of the Chinese procedure, “there are too many irregularities and gray areas for it to pass normally like a letter in the post,” assures this source. WADA has the possibility of seizing the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) to challenge a decision of an anti-doping agency, which it did for example in the case of the Russian skater Valieva. But there, she didn’t do it. “When we see the behavior of WADA with Russia in the Valieva affair, the contrast is obvious and raises questions,” asks the expert.

A system in danger?

This affair could have serious consequences according to several anti-doping players. “There, clearly, there is a risk of secession from the United States, and if they leave, it’s over,” he summarizes. Since the revelation of the affair, the head of American anti-doping, Travis Tygart, and the head of WADA, Witold Banka, have clashed violently. Their relations were already fresh, with the United States having difficulty accepting the authority of this body which is not attached to any state, and to which it is the most important financial contributor.

In a press release released Tuesday, the American anti-doping agency considers that this case marks an “obvious failure of the global anti-doping system” and calls for an overhaul of WADA as well as “the appointment of an independent prosecutor responsible for examining the entire of these 23 positive tests and to ensure that justice is done.”

Because this affair could be a blow to the confidence that countries place in WADA. “However, the system is based on the trust placed in the gendarme, it is the keystone”, continues this source, who fears “that at least heads will roll to avoid a collapse of the system”.

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