WADA president Witold Banka. GETTY IMAGES

With the Olympics less than three months away and the aftermath of the Chinese doping scandal still lingering, worldwide suspicions about an uneven playing field won’t die down; but it’s in the United States, where the news broke, that the World Anti-Doping Agency faces the biggest pushback.

The New York Times and German broadcaster ARD first reported in April that WADA had failed to properly handle the 23 positive tests for the drug Trimetazidine, also known as TMZ, from the athletes that were set to participate in the Tokyo 2021 Olympics, and that the swimmers were allowed to compete and win medals for China. On Sunday, the US newspaper underlined that concern about the governing body’s ability or willingness to adequately police world sport keeps growing.

The concern, in WADA’s case, should be mutual, as the American government has so far operated as its main financial backer, with a reported $2.51 million contribution in 2019, just when China started increasing its yearly donations to the global watchdog’s budget, which comes from a 50-50 split between governments and the Olympic movement. The Asian superpower pledged nearly $2 million above its annual requirements to WADA programmes both years prior to what the United States Anti-Doping Association (USADA) deemed "a potential cover-up situation," including one payment designed to strengthen the agency’s investigations and intelligence unit. The Associated Press listed donations of $993,000 (€927,000) in 2018 and $992,000 (€926,000) in 2019 that were made public at the time, along with similar contributions from countries including Egypt, India and Saudi Arabia.

The trust issue with WADA became evident with the handling (or mishandling) of the positive tests information and has increased with each subsequent misstep by the agency that Witold Banka presides. His explanations, once media reports surfaced, were met with scepticism, at best; and his announcement last month that the entity would conduct an independent investigation led by Swiss prosecutor Eric Cottier has failed to convince as well. So far, it’s been labelled more a Public Relations stunt that an honest, strong-willed attempt to unveil what really happened, with strong accuastions of a blatant double-standard.

Journalists have questioned, countries have protested, agencies have objected, federations have joined, athlete-led pressure groups have piled on and now the US Congress is pressuring WADA with possibly holding back future funding. The American government contributed over $3.6 million to WADA’s budget in 2024, more than any other country, and senator Chris Van Hollen, who leads its subcommittee, fired the first warning shot on Wednesday. “We need answers before we support future funding,” he said.

The New York Times reported on Sunday 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. “As I have shared with you, the athletes have expressed they are heading into the Olympic and Paralympic Games with serious concerns about whether the playing field is level and the competition fair.” The newspaper also detailed how Cottier’s nomination was far from pristine, as the official charged of auditing the agency’s intelligence and investigations department at the time the Chinese swimmers scandal broke was the one who appointed the Swiss prosecutor, who has close ties to the IOC.

Two-time Olympic gold-medallist Lilly King was the latest athlete to express distrust in WADA’s lack of compliance in the lead-up to Paris 2024. “I am not confident when I get up on the blocks that the people to my right and my left are clean. And that’s really unfortunate, because that’s not something I should have to focus on while racing at the Olympics,” the current US Swimming Athletes Advisory Council member told the Times.

USADA and WADA have been at odds for some time now. In September 2018, USADA CEO Travis Tygart called WADA's decision to reinstate The Russian Anti-Doping Agency after a three-year ban following allegations of state-sponsored doping “a devastating blow to the world’s clean athletes” and demanded major changes. But the fact that the global agency was not upfront about the China positives in the lead-up to the Tokyo Games seems to be the tipping point, with accusations of wrongdoing, demands for transparency and urgent reform hitting a new high

The recent communication by Gupta is far from a surprise, however, as the US National Drug Control Policy director had asked for further clarification from the involved party back in April. “There must be rigorous, independent investigations to look into any incident of potential wrongdoing,” he advanced. Despite the uproar, Banka’s board did not hold back. “Mr Tygart's allegations are politically motivated and designed to undermine WADA's work to protect clean sport around the world. WADA notes that the damaging comments have been made without any supporting evidence,” the agency said in a statement.

American Katie Meili, like King a medallist in Rio 2016 also told The Times that she felt uneasy about the lack of level playing field in the upcoming Summer Games. “Yes, the positive tests are a concern, and that’s a bad thing. But even more concerning to me is that the international regulator is not doing their job,” she said.