Halt To Anti-Doping Testing In China Over Corona Crisis Raises Concern

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The suspension of anti-doping testing in China as a result of measures imposed to help contain and control the spread of the Corona – COVID 19 – virus enters its third week tomorrow amid concerns over fairness heading into the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.

Rob Koehler, head of Global Athlete, has called for “transparency and a solution” after testing by Chinada, the Chinese anti-doping agency, was halted on February 3. The suspension of testing could be in place for weeks, if not months leading into the Olympic Games set to get underway on July 24.

Many international sports events, including test events for the Olympics, have been cancelled as a result of the corona crisis but the International Olympic Committee and Japanese organisers this week dubbed as “irresponsible speculation” talk of cancellation of the Games.

International & Domestic Testing On Hold

Beyond domestic testing by Chinada, between 80 and 120 international out-of-competition tests ordered by FINA, the international federation, would normally be conducted on Chinese aquatic athletes in the first quarter (up to 160 in the first four months) of the year, based on the statistics of seasons past. None of that is now taking place as a result of the Corona containment.

While there is no criticism of the need to operate strict containment policies as China, the source of the COVID-19 outbreak, and other nations work with the World Health Organisation (WHO), Koelher is asking for clarity and measures designed “to avoid any suspicion” of foul play. This is as much to protect China’s athletes as those from anywhere else in the world, he told Christoph Becker at the Frankfurter Allgemeine this week:

“This is the right of Chinese athletes who want to compete in Tokyo. The athletes who compete against competition from China in Tokyo have the right to fair competition. That includes the knowledge that doping control measures were taken in the months before the Games.”

The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) says that it plans to work with the Chinese authorities to “ensure the (anti-doping) program’s integrity is maintained despite the outbreak” and the resulting travel restrictions to and inside China.

As yet, no details have been given as to how that cooperation would work to ensure Chinese athletes will be available for testing this month. A halt to testing also means a suspension of the “availability” system under which athletes must provide a time and place each day where and when they can be reached by unannounced testers.

In its latest responses to media, WADA said that specific questions about which steps were planned could not be given at the moment.

On January 30, the World Health Organisation (WHO), declared the outbreak of “novel coronavirus 2019- nCoV” a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC). It did not recommend any travel or trade restrictions at the time but stated:

“Countries should be prepared for containment, including active surveillance, early detection, isolation and case management, contact tracing and prevention of onward spread of 2019-nCoV infection…”

WHO’s Guide To The Corona Virus:

‘Comparisons with ‘Flu don’t work’

In the northern hemisphere, it’s flu season and the mortality rate in the United States alone is running at more than 8,000 this season. However, experts caution against comparing influenza with the outbreak of the novel corona 19 virus, the World Economic Forum among the first to look at that issue last month:

Since then, the reasons why the influenza passed between humans and viruses that can be transmitted to humans from other species have been aired far and wide. This commentary at WIRED is among latest examples.

Trust in Anti-Doping

Meanwhile, WADA and others are aware that the Tokyo Games could suffer similar loss of trust and confidence in the anti-doping system that was seen before other recent Games, including Rio 2016 as a result of the Russian doping crisis and what was widely criticised as a case of inconsistent treatment of athletes from different countries across and within sports.

Latest concerns over the anti-doping system in general are raised against a backdrop of significant cases in flow at the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS): the court is yet to hear a Russian challenge to WADA’s latest ban on the country, while a decision in the case of Chinese swimmer Sun Yang, heard at the CAS last November, is pending.

On Friday, the CAS cleared Brazilian swimmer Gabriel Santos, basing its decision to remove a one-year suspension on the swimmer on cross-contamination said to have been caused by the sharing of towels, key witness provided by the swimmer’s family.

An anti-doping source told Swimming World: “Whatever the rights and wrongs of that case, it feels to many, in general, that loopholes abound in the system. What may seem fair to some can also feel unfair to others observing strict rules of engagement.”

A CAS statement noted:

Gabriel Da Silva Santos is found to have committed an Anti-Doping Rule Violation (ADRV) for which he bears no fault or negligence and for which no period of ineligibility shall be imposed on him.

In May 2019, Gabriel Da Silva Santos underwent an out-of-competition doping control. The sample tested positive for the presence of the prohibited substance Clostebol, an exogenous anabolic agent that appears on the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) Prohibited Substances List. Following an investigation, the FINA Doping Panel concluded in the Challenged Decision that while the source of the prohibited substance was cross-contamination through the sharing of bathroom towels and products with a family member who had been using Clostebol under medical prescription, ruled that Gabriel Da Silva Santos had committed an ADRV and sanctioned him with a one-year period of ineligibility as from 20 July 2019.

The Chinada Challenge

Chinada, operating in challenging circumstances, said that it “will gradually resume testing as soon as the situation improves,” while the International Testing Authority (ITA) added that “private providers” could be used to conduct tests in China.

“The situation is one of caution so as not to endanger athletes or test officials and while recognising the importance of anti-doping activities, the priorities are to maintain public health for all,” said the ITA.

A WADA spokesman noted: “We are aware of the situation regarding the coronavirus outbreak and we are closely monitoring the public health warnings that are issued in that regard. We are assisting Chinada as it implements a plan that will maintain the integrity of the anti-doping program in China.”

He added that this was “not the first time that such an outbreak has occurred”, citing the zika virus before Rio 2016 and the SARS outbreak in 2003.

In a statement, WADA also reminded Chinada and China of its ‘fair play’ responsibilities, noting: “The anti-doping system allows for flexibility and cooperation between Anti-Doping Organizations (ADOs) – including National Anti-Doping Organizations, International Federations, Major Event Organizations etc. – to ensure that the integrity of the program is upheld and that athletes are still being properly tested, despite the outbreak.”

“As ADOs are responsible for testing, it is up to these organizations to ensure that the system is maintained, while also operating in line with directives from health, law enforcement and border protection authorities.”

Meanwhile, China has announced a drop in new cases from the coronavirus outbreak for a third consecutive day: 2,009 new cases and 142 more deaths nationwide were reported today. In total more than 68,000 people have been infected in China, with the death toll standing at 1,665.

The crisis has highlighted what has and is changing in China, as well as where the red lines of control remain.