Column: As Chinese Doping Controversy Rages, Clean Swimmers Rightfully Angry About ‘Irreparable Damage’

Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Column: Amid Chinese Doping Controversy, Clean Swimmers Rightfully Angry About ‘Irreparable Damage’

Why were 23 Chinese swimmers not sanctioned after testing positive for trimetazidine in early 2021? How were these swimmers allowed to compete in the Olympics and win medals despite their positive tests? Do we really buy the official story of how Chinese swimmers accidentally ingested TMZ?

Those questions and more have been buzzing among members of the swimming community all weekend since news of the positive tests broke late Friday and early Saturday. Several American swimmers were informed of positive test results involving swimmers in their races before reports from German broadcaster ARD, the Daily Telegraph in Australia and the New York Times confirmed the scope of the controversy.

The reporting showed huge gaps in the official explanation, courtesy of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and its Chinese domestic counterpart (CHINADA), that determined that the 23 Chinese swimmers accidentally ingested TMZ since trace amounts were found in a hotel kitchen which served swimmers during a training camp. Testimony from a whistleblower and the head of the Athletics Integrity Unit suggested something more sinister than accidental contamination, and USADA CEO Travis Tygart cast strong doubt on how the Chinese and global authorities handled the case in a statement that prompted WADA to threaten litigation.

Even if WADA and CHINADA are taken at their word that an investigation proved contamination, there is no way that under standard anti-doping procedures these Chinese swimmers should have been allowed to compete at the Tokyo Olympics. Per the WADA code, athletes who prove no-fault still must serve suspensions. Section 10.5 of the code lays out potential instances of contaminated substances before stating that “the unique facts of a particular case… could result in a reduced sanction.”

Nowhere does that mention no sanction at all and no public disclosure of a positive test. Even with a shortened ban, under no circumstances should all 23 have been cleared by late July.

That means that each swimmer who missed out on an Olympic medal after finishing behind one of the 23 Chinese swimmers got robbed. Intent to cheat or tainted food does not matter per WADA’s own code.

Today, those women and men are angry, and they have every reason to be. British swimmer James Guy spoke out in defense of countryman Duncan Scott, the silver medalist in the men’s 200 IM behind China’s Wang Shun. In a series of posts on X, Guy wrote, “Ban them all and never compete again,” and he later added, “Give Slam his Gold medal now,” in reference to Scott.

The United States women lost out on two gold medals thanks to the participation of the Chinese swimmers. Zhang Yufei captured gold in the 200 butterfly while Americans Regan Smith and Hali Flickinger took silver and bronze, respectively. In that same session, Zhang was one of several Chinese swimmers named among the 23 to help China win gold in the women’s 800 freestyle relay in world-record time.

The U.S. took silver in that race, also breaking the previous world record, with a team of Allison SchmittPaige MaddenKatie McLaughlin and Katie Ledecky, with Bella Sims and Brooke Forde also earning medals for their prelims efforts. In an Instagram story Sunday, Ledecky shared a photo of the finals group with their silver medals and a heart emoji. In her own Instagram story, Schmitt called out WADA for a “lack of fair play and integrity” before noting separately, “I remember our team ASKING to be drug tested after this race. To ensure that we all are clean.”

Instagram posts from American swimmers Katie Ledecky (left) and Allison Schmitt (right) after they were denied Olympic gold in Tokyo

Madden, meanwhile, expressed her displeasure in a statement provided to Swimming World, in which the 25-year-old noted that she still wanted to see the situation rectified, but there was no way to truly recover the golden moment the American team deserved.

“Recent news has not been easy to digest. Ultimately, if doping occurred, there’s irreparable damage and lost opportunity for Team USA. My teammates and I lost our moment to celebrate our world-record performance, to see our flag in the winners position and be presented our gold medal. There’s little that can be said or done to fix that. I hope that the situation will be properly investigated and that justice will be served.”

– Paige Madden


Paige Madden — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

These comments represent just a few of the swimmers adversely affected by the non-action of WADA and CHINADA in 2021. Many others have not commented publicly about the controversy and understandably so: they remember how Americans Lilly King and Ryan Murphy had been previously targeted when they called out doping violations swept under the rug at the 2016 and 2021 Olympics, respectively.

It would be no surprise if swimmers staying quiet, even those who did not directly lose opportunities because of a swimmer who should have been suspended, are thinking something similar. These swimmers are furious at the authorities and incensed at the revelation of a double standard of catering to the Chinese delegation. in anti-doping rules within sport.

CHINADA and WADA have defended a scenario that, if you squint hard enough, seems somewhat plausible. Not to swimmers, coaches and their families, those for whom this is real life, those who allow their lives to constantly altered to prove they compete clean, those who have lost out on moments, medals, honors and even endorsements because of the improper handling of this case. These women and men have a clear view of what is at stake and can see the injustice.

For swimmers still competing, ignoring resentment and pushing forward can help them maintain focus on the upcoming Paris Olympics, when many will face off with the same Chinese swimmers as three years ago. They must swallow their feelings and accept the bitter aftertaste.

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