WADA defends its actions in Chinese swimming scandal. Its loudest critic raised the volume: 'It's a fairy tale'

World Anti-Doping Agency officials spent 99 minutes Monday answering questions and criticism swirling around a scandal that has roiled Olympic swimming. In the end, all their scientific and legal justifications for allowing nearly two dozen positive tests to go unpunished boiled down to a single explanation: they trusted China.

Travis Tygart, the combative CEO of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, found their answers “entirely unsatisfying.”

In a phone interview Monday night with Yahoo Sports, Tygart called the theory advanced by Chinese authorities — that a banned heart medication, trimetazidine (TMZ), contaminated food or water in a hotel kitchen and entered the bodies of 23 Chinese swimmers — “a fairy tale.”

WADA, based on scientific review, without conducting an independent investigation, believed it.

That is the crux of a case that exploded into public view Saturday. The undisputed facts are as follows: In early January 2021, 23 top Chinese swimmers tested positive for TMZ while competing domestically. All 23 were staying at the Huayang Holiday Hotel in Shijiazhuang. Most of their TMZ concentration levels were low. Some of the swimmers were tested two or three times during the meet, and at least nine of them also produced negative samples — in other words, their TMZ levels fluctuated below and above the detection threshold, according to WADA.

The Chinese anti-doping agency, CHINADA, quickly suspected that something about this batch of positives was abnormal. It tabbed China’s Ministry of Public Security — the law enforcement and intelligence arm of the Chinese Communist Party — to investigate. The investigation yielded a report, delivered to WADA in June 2021, that concluded "environmental or food contamination" was the source of the positives. CHINADA declined to pursue the case as an anti-doping rule violation.

“So at that point,” WADA general counsel Ross Wenzel said Monday, “the matter was decided on the merits.”

Wenzel acknowledged that, per the World Anti-Doping Code, CHINADA should have publicly disclosed the cases. WADA could have appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, and enforced its own rules — which require provisional suspensions and hearings to prove contamination. This was still a violation, even if a so-called “violation with no fault.”

But WADA declined to appeal because, Wenzel argued, "it would've been 23 appeals against athletes we accepted were innocent.”

That acceptance baffles and infuriates Tygart.

The Chinese Ministry of Public Security, months after the positive tests, claimed to find traces of TMZ in spice containers, sink drains and extractor vents in the Huayang Holiday Hotel’s kitchen — an explanation that many experts find unconvincing.

“You're just going to blindly accept the [Ministry of Public Security]?” Tygart asked rhetorically. “You're gonna just blindly accept what they sent you without questioning it, and without following up?”

WADA officials argued Monday that they did question CHINADA. They requested the case file. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, they couldn’t immediately travel to China to conduct their own investigation on the ground; but they did review science. And they pieced together a story that some experts find possible.

But likely? Plausible? WADA confirmed Monday that Chinese authorities never explained or even hypothesized how TMZ, a prescription pill, got to the hotel kitchen.

“It's a fairy tale,” Tygart argued. “It's literally Tinkerbell coming in and sprinkling magic fairy dust. And I don't believe that.”

FILE - The Chinese and the Olympic flag wave during the opening ceremony of the 2022 Winter Olympics, Feb. 4, 2022, in Beijing. In the two years before the World Anti-Doping Agency cleared 23 Chinese swimmers of doping allegations, that country’s government contributed nearly $2 million in additional funding to WADA programs, including one designed to strengthen the agency’s investigations and intelligence unit. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek, file)
The Chinese and the Olympic flag wave during the opening ceremony of the 2022 Winter Olympics, Feb. 4, 2022, in Beijing. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek, file)

The story WADA chose to believe, or at least “consider,” as its senior director of science and medicine Olivier Rabin said Monday, “is that an individual who had been prescribed with [TMZ] … would have used it on site, in the restaurant.”

“It's quite possible to have a contamination with [TMZ], in particular if you crushed the pills, if you cut the pills, or for whatever reason if you put them in a liquid and let them dissolve before consumption,” Rabin said. “All those elements are plausible in the global context of a contamination.”

Other details provided by CHINADA then led WADA toward the contamination conclusion, namely:

  • The 23 athletes were “from different regions of China, different coaches, different swimming clubs,” Wenzel said. They seemed to share only two commonalities: They were all elite swimmers, and they were all staying at the same hotel.

  • No swimmers staying at other hotels during the meet tested positive.

  • TMZ concentration levels in the urine samples were “quite low,” Rabin said, much lower than in previous TMZ doping cases, including cases involving Chinese swimmers.

  • The levels fluctuated. “For two athletes, we had patterns of positive-negative-positive, and another negative-negative-positive,” Rabin said. “And for those who were tested twice, six of them presented negative samples followed a few hours apart by positive results. Which, in this situation, and looking at the diversity of the profiles, tend to usually indicate that [TMZ] was not deliberately ingested, and rather points out to some form of contamination.”

Tygart, though, said that these were “pretty ridiculous excuses not to follow up more thoroughly and do a real investigation.” His reasoning:

  • TMZ concentration levels tend to be low and fluctuating at “the tail end of an excretion,” Tygart said. “We all know that this happens.” This “pulsing” effect is a “common phenomenon,” and has been debunked as a defense. “So,” Tygart said, “for [WADA] to have relied on that is really quite incredible.” (Rabin, the WADA science director, also noted that not all of the athletes’ levels were marginal; “some of the concentrations were well above the limit of identification.”)

  • WADA officials, when pressed on their point about multiple hotels, could only confirm that “at least one other hotel” was housing swimmers. And they wouldn’t say whether swimmers might’ve been grouped by status, with elite swimmers at the Huayang Holiday Hotel and lower-level or local swimmers perhaps at a different location. Tygart argued that this point was “equally unsatisfying.”

The alternate scenario is that some or all of the 23 swimmers were deliberately using TMZ to enhance their stamina and endurance — as hundreds of athletes, Chinese and otherwise, in swimming and other sports, have in the past.

Tygart told Yahoo Sports that this would align with a tip that USADA received and forwarded to WADA in September 2020, about Chinese swimmers. “The tip alleged there were gaps in the testing of these swimmers, allowing the athletes to avoid positive tests,” USADA said Tuesday. And it “named names,” Tygart added. “It didn't name 23 athletes, but it named several athletes. Those athletes, we now know, had positive tests [four months later].”

Their tests, experts have said, could very well have stemmed from out-of-competition TMZ use, which can benefit swimmers in training.

WADA’s counter, essentially, is that “we had no evidence of wrongdoing, and no credible way to disprove the contamination theory,” as president Witold Bańka said Monday.

Tygart pointed out, though, that the burden of proof is not on WADA; it’s on the athlete. “They flipped strict liability on its head,” he said.

And they said they never interviewed the swimmers. They never demanded CCTV footage nor spoke with hotel staff. They seemingly never questioned the relevance of TMZ traces in a kitchen months after the supposed contamination. “Like,” Tygart said, “how could you not open an investigation on this crazy theory?”

His intimation, of course, was that he didn’t trust China. Several Western journalists on Monday’s Zoom call hinted at skepticism, or even an assumption of nefariousness.

Wenzel, the WADA counsel, retorted: “I operate on evidence.” The Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), he said, does too. “Certainly, the CAS would not draw any sort of adverse inference, or assume skulduggery simply because we were dealing with Chinese authorities.” The Ministry of Public Security, in effect, would be treated with the same respect as the FBI.

So, Wenzel argued multiple times, a WADA appeal would have been hopeless.

“What I can say, as a lawyer, is that we didn't have any evidence that there had been anything untoward that had gone on,” Wenzel said. “If what's underlying the question is a thesis that [TMZ] might've been planted in the kitchen, and then that gave rise to the detection, we didn't have any evidence of that.”

The question, of course, is whether they — or anybody trustworthy and impartial — ever looked for it.