Zhang Yufei was selected fo compete in Paris. GETTY IMAGES

In an interview with AFP, Anti-doping expert April Henning calls out WADA for mishandling the 23 positive tests that led to the New York Times report and subsequent accusations of a cover-up by the international policing body from American officials and politicians.

24 days to go until the Paris 2024 Olympic Games start and the backlash directed at the World Anti-Doping Agency doesn’t seem to simmer down after the initial news broke in April that many of the athletes suspected of using the drug trimetazidine (TMZ) for doping purposes indeed competed in the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and even before that, as far as Rio 2016, after also failing tests for the steroid clenbuterol.

Despite announcing an independent investigation into the matter, WADA remains under intense scrutiny globally, but especially from US officials, lawmakers, media and athlete-led pressure groups. Their message doesn’t stray too far from Henning’s own and other opinions back in Europe either, basically stating that the global watchdog shot itself in the foot on this issue.  

"There are no winners here: this is a huge mess and one largely of WADA's own making," the anti-doping expert from Edinburgh's Heriot-Watt University told AFP as the scandal has permeated, not only affecting the agency but other athletes and governing bodies including "the Chinese swimmers in this case who will now forever be labelled as dopers even if there truly was a contamination issue."

China has consistently denied there was any intention to cheat and railed against "fake news" while some local media have presented the story as an American-led plot to discredit the country and its team, which will head to the Paris Olympics under fierce scrutiny with 11 of the squad among a group who tested positive for the banned substance in the lead-up to the Tokyo Games.

Both WADA and Chinese officials repeatedly attacked The New York Times’ reporting of the case and the Asian country then went on to select 11 suspect swimmers to participate in the upcoming Paris 2024 Olympics; the decision worsened the matter, leading up to a US Congressional hearing where swimming icons like Michael Phelps called out the global policing body and politicians demanded answers from the national agency supposed to supervise the cheaters.

Swimming is always one of the most eagerly anticipated events and along with the United States and Australia, China is expected to be among the medals when the Games begin on 26 July. Any success will face immediate questions, however, after the April revelations. 11 of those 23 that will compete in the French capital  make up a third of China's swim team. TMZ is a prescription heart medication but it is banned in athletes because it can enhance performance. The swimmers were found to have "consistently very low levels" of the drug, WADA said. It was also the medication at the centre of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics doping scandal involving teenage Russian figure skater Kamila Valieva. She was banned for four years in January.

The New York Times, which together with German broadcaster ARD first reported the 23 failed tests, then said in June that three of those had also tested positive for another banned substance years earlier. Chinese authorities argued the three had ingested the substance inadvertently through contaminated meat, and no disciplinary action was taken. WADA said the trio were found to have levels of clenbuterol which were between "six and 50 times lower" than the minimum reporting level currently used by the agency.

Qin Haiyang, breaststroke multiple world champion. GETTY IMAGES
Qin Haiyang, breaststroke multiple world champion. GETTY IMAGES

Zhang Yufei was one of the swimmers alleged by The New York Times and ARD to have been among the 23. The 26-year-old, one of China's biggest stars, won two golds in Tokyo and the so-called "butterfly queen" will again be in contention for medals in Paris. She told AFP in May that her aim for the Olympics was to "surpass my past self".

In written answers to questions posed before the positive tests came to light, Zhang said winning the 200m butterfly in Tokyo and the medal ceremony afterwards were "the most precious moments in my life". AFP tried to contact Zhang and the Chinese Swimming Association several times since the controversy erupted but neither replied to the questions put to them.

China's 31-member swim squad also boasts several others who will seriously challenge for medals in Paris but have questions hanging over them. Also alleged to have been among the 23 and set to compete in Paris are Wang Shun, the 200m medley gold medallist in Tokyo. There is also Qin Haiyang, a breaststroke multiple world champion and the 200m record-holder.

China's best-known swimmer, the three-time Olympic gold medallist Sun Yang, will not be in Paris -- he is only just back from suspension for an anti-doping violation of his own, the second of his career.