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Group of 23 Chinese swimmers who tested positive in 2021 were cleared, WADA says

Budapest 2022 FINA World Championships - Previews

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY - JUNE 16: General view of the diving pool ahead of the Budapest 2022 FINA World Championships at Duna Arena on June 16, 2022 in Budapest, Hungary. (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)

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A group of 23 Chinese swimmers tested positive for low amounts of the same banned substance in early 2021 and were allowed to continue competing after the China Anti-Doping Agency accepted that the positive tests were caused by inadvertent contamination. The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) reviewed the cases in 2021 and chose not to appeal the decision.

The 23 swimmers, who have not been named by WADA, tested positive for trimetazidine (TMZ), a medication that increases blood flow to the heart and can be performance enhancing. TMZ is banned by WADA without a therapeutic use exemption.

WADA said it was notified of the positive tests and the China Anti-Doping Agency’s decision in June 2021. The WADA science department reviewed the case thoroughly in June and July of 2021.

The Tokyo Olympic swimming competition took place from July 24 to Aug. 1, 2021. Chinese swimmers won three gold medals and six total medals.

WADA scientists and investigators could not work in China due to COVID-19 restrictions, but still spent several weeks reviewing the case, including testing the contamination assertion.

“Indeed, we even sought new pharmacokinetic and metabolism information on TMZ from the manufacturer and tested several hypotheses, including doping strategies with low TMZ doses, in assessing the plausibility of the contamination scenario that was presented to WADA,” Olivier Rabin, the WADA senior director of science and medicine, said in a press release. “Ultimately, we concluded that there was no concrete basis to challenge the asserted contamination. Indeed, the contamination scenario was further supported by the combination of the consistently low concentrations of TMZ as well as no doping pattern with several athletes presenting multiple samples collected over the course of several days which fluctuated between negative and positive (and vice versa).”

U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) CEO Travis Tygart said in a statement that WADA and the China Anti-Doping Agency “secretly, until now, swept these positives under the carpet by failing to fairly and evenly follow the global rules that apply to everyone else in the world.”

WADA responded by saying Tygart’s remarks were “outrageous, completely false and defamatory.”

“It is implicit in his statement that Mr. Tygart does not accept the finding of environmental contamination in this case although he cannot say why,” WADA said in a statement. “Yet, it is true that in the United States, WADA has also accepted USADA’s similar conclusions of contamination involving a number of U.S. athletes. Mr. Tygart should realize that it is not only American athletes who can fall victim to situations of no-fault contamination.”

Tygart then responded to WADA.

“It is disappointing to see WADA stoop to threats and scare tactics when confronted with a blatant violation of the rules governing anti-doping,” he said in a statement. “When you blow away their rhetoric, the facts remain as have been reported: WADA failed to provisionally suspend the athletes, disqualify results, and publicly disclose the positives. These are egregious failures, even if you buy their story that this was contamination and a potent drug ‘magically appeared’ in a kitchen and led to 23 positive tests of elite Chinese swimmers. Yes, there are contamination cases, and we’ve been advocating for years to change the WADA rules for those substances that can potentially cause contamination. TMZ is not in that category. And, most importantly, in all contamination cases that we have proven, we provisionally suspended the athlete, disqualified the results, found a violation, and issued an announcement as required by the rules. Transparency is the key to shining the light in the darkness, and here, by not following the rules, WADA and CHINADA have left clean athletes in the dark.”

In a separate statement, World Aquatics, the international governing body for swimming, said its comments on the case are limited due to confidentiality provisions with regard to anti-doping and drug testing.

“With regard to the Adverse Analytical Findings (AAFs) you have referred to, they were carefully considered by the FINA Doping Control Review Board,” the statement read in part. “Materials relating to the source of the AAFs were subject to independent expert scrutiny retained by FINA (editor’s note: FINA is the former name for World Aquatics). World Aquatics is confident that these AAFs were handled diligently and professionally, and in accordance with all applicable anti-doping regulations, including the World Anti-Doping Code.”

TMZ is the same heart medication that Russian figure skater Kamila Valiyeva tested positive for on Christmas 2021, leading to a four-year ban and the disqualification of her 2022 Olympic results.

Other swimmers previously were banned after testing positive for TMZ -- China’s Sun Yang for three months in 2014, and American Madisyn Cox for six months in 2018.

Sun’s ban was announced after his suspension was completed. He said at the time he had been taking TMZ for years to treat an existing heart problem, according to Chinese media. WADA added TMZ to its banned list at the start of 2014.

Sun, a 32-year-old with three Olympic titles, is currently serving a four-year ban for an unrelated doping case stemming from 2018, when he had a drug-test sample destroyed with a hammer. The ban ends in May, but he is not expected to be on the Paris Olympic team. Chinese Olympic selection criteria states that the last trials meet ends later this month.

Cox’s ban was reduced from two years to six months by the Court of Arbitration for Sport after she argued that the positive test was due to a multivitamin contamination. She returned to competition and later retired in 2022.