World Anti-Doping Agency logo. WADA

Just as it sparred again with the United States Anti-doping Agency (USADA), the global body updated its Foundation Board on the latest developments in the scandal involving the 23 swimmers from China in 2021 and insisted on food contamination as the source of the failed tests.

The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) held a virtual extraordinary meeting open to members of the media on Friday —seeking to provide further information on the controversial subject that has sparked international uproar in the sporting world— after the New York Times and German broadcaster ARD reported back in April that the athletes were allowed to compete in the 2020 Tokyo Games (held in 2021 due to the Covid pandemic) despite testing positive for the drug Trimetazidine, also known as TMZ.

This was the latest in a series of stakeholder engagement activities that have included an extensive press conference, meetings with its Executive Committee, Athlete Council and National and Regional Anti-Doping Organisations, as well as publication of media statements and a comprehensive fact sheet and question-and-answer document, WADA pointed out.

USADA, among other agencies and international organisations and athlete-led pressure groups, have harshly criticised WADA for not being upfront about the doping scandal since the beginning, going as far as to label its controversial handling of the case "a potential cover up", in the words of American anti-doping boss Travis Tygart. This has sparked a war of words between both entities and forced the global governing body to embark in a Public Relations campaign to clear its image.  

WADA said it gave members a full outline of the work that it has carried out on the case from the moment it became aware of the positive tests in 2021 to date "from every perspective including as it relates to science, legal affairs, and intelligence and investigations" during the board meeting and stated it received broad support from stakeholders, including representatives of athletes, Governments and the Sport Movement, as well as from WADA’s Founding President, Richard Pound.

"At all stages, WADA has maintained that according to all the available evidence, this was not a case of doping but of no-fault contamination, and that WADA acted according to applicable processes and rules making no attempt to cover up the case in any way. As a response to calls, WADA has now referred the matter to an independent prosecutor, Mr. Eric Cottier, who will conduct a review with the intention of issuing a report by the end of June", the statement said.

Pound had fired back at USADA by saying he  was "deeply disappointed and disgusted by the deliberate lies and distortions coming from USADA, including that WADA has swept doping cases in China under the rug."

The New York Times reported last week that the US' top drug official, Dr Rahul Gupta, demanded a truly independent commission on the matter, as well as an emergency meeting by its executive board within the next 10 days. "Let me underscore the extreme concern I have been hearing directly from American athletes and their representatives on this issue," the official, also a WADA executive committee member, wrote then.

After the board meeting, WADA’s current president, Witold Bańka, insisted that the investigation led by the Swiss-born prosecutor Cottier will be independent. "Today WADA received the backing of its Foundation Board. It is understandable that stakeholders have questions. It is a complex case and we are happy to have had the opportunity today to provide the facts and respond to their questions. The independent prosecutor has now started his review. He will have full access to all WADA’s files and any information in our possession. He is also free to choose any other independent expert to assist him in reaching his conclusions, as he deems necessary," he explained. "WADA will be ready to consider any recommendations he may have in that regard. In fact, as we are currently carrying out a stakeholder consultation process related to the ongoing update of the World Anti-Doping Code and International Standards, the timing is perfect to consider any recommendations as to how the global anti-doping system can be strengthened further."

In its meeting, WADA detailed that the 23 swimmers had undergone significant testing in the past few years and in fact provided approximately 1,700 doping control samples between 2018 and 2022, with certain athletes having been tested dozens of times per year, whether by swimming’s International Federation (now known as World Aquatics) or the Chinese Anti-Doping Agency. The 42-member Foundation Board is WADA’s highest decision-making body.

International Olympic Committee boss Thomas Bach has also backed WADA in its handling of the case, telling AFP also that the Chinese swimmers could compete at the Paris Olympics this year if cleared.