WADA launches ‘independent’ review of Chinese doping, USADA calls out ‘whitewash’

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TOKYO, JAPAN - MARCH 20: A general view of swimmers competing in the Women's 100m Freestyle Heat during day four of the Swimming Olympic Qualifier at Tokyo Aquatics Centre on March 20, 2024 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Kiyoshi Ota/Getty Images)
A general view of swimmers competing in the Women's 100m Freestyle Heat during day four of the Swimming Olympic Qualifier at Tokyo Aquatics Centre on March 20, 2024 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Kiyoshi Ota/Getty Images) (Kiyoshi Ota via Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — Two hours after the World Anti-Doping Agency “invited an independent prosecutor” to probe its handling of a controversial case involving Chinese swimmers, the agency’s most vocal critic labeled the review a “whitewash” and “absolutely unacceptable.”

Travis Tygart leaned forward as he made the accusation at the head of a table here in Washington D.C., where he spent Thursday on Capitol Hill lobbying members of Congress “to ensure justice gets served in this case.”

As CEO of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), and perhaps the foremost advocate for clean U.S. athletes, he has called China’s excuses “a fairytale,” and called for a “full review of how it came to be that 23 Chinese positive tests were covered up” in 2021.

But the investigation that WADA announced Thursday, which will be led by experienced Swiss attorney Eric Cottier, felt like “Exhibit A of the problem with this [global anti-doping] system,” Tygart said. “It's a circle-the-wagons effort to protect itself.”

WADA said that it would launch the probe with “unanimous support” from its executive committee. Rahul Gupta, the White House’s top drug control official, who sits on the WADA committee, said in a statement that this was “an important first step in addressing the recent doping allegations.” WADA will grant Cottier “full and unfettered access to all of WADA’s files and documents related to this matter,” and has tasked him with answering two core questions:

  • “Is there any indication of bias toward China” from WADA?

  • Was WADA’s decision to not appeal the case “a reasonable one”?

In its news release, though, WADA continued to call the dozens of positive tests a “no-fault contamination case.” It has accepted the explanation from Chinese authorities that a banned heart medication, trimetazidine (TMZ), was detected months later in the kitchen of a hotel where the 23 swimmers had been staying.

WADA also said that it would invite the probe “in light of the damaging and baseless allegations.” It did not mention Tygart by name, but has already threatened legal action against him and USADA. “WADA’s integrity and reputation is under attack,” WADA president Witold Banka said in a Thursday statement. “In the past few days, WADA has been unfairly accused of bias in favor of China.”

The language suggested to Tygart that the “independent” probe would be “pre-cooked.” He said he didn’t trust it “at all.” He cited a lack of athlete input. He cited “the retaliatory nature of that press release.”

Tygart specifically cited a statement from Ryan Pini, a Papua New Guinean former swimmer who now serves on WADA’s executive committee, at the conclusion of the release. “It is a matter of great concern for us that these athletes, who, given the facts of this case, are entirely innocent and, in fact, victims of contamination without any fault or negligence on their side, are now being accused of wrongdoing with their names and sensitive details about them being published,” Pini said. “I have asked WADA to conduct a full inquiry into what led to this information being leaked to the media and to take all necessary steps to sanction those responsible for exposing these athletes to unfair criticism and to ensure athletes rights are protected.”

Tygart felt that this amounted to whistleblower intimidation — to “attacking the very people that you would want to have come talk to you.”

And the entire situation, he said, exemplified the conflicts of interest at the heart of this scandal and inherent in WADA’s composition.

WADA was created in 1999 by the International Olympic Committee. Today, it receives half of its funding from the IOC, while the other half now comes from national governments. Its executive board also comprises government representatives and members of the Olympic movement. Its IOC ties have long led critics to decry its lack of independence.

In the Chinese swimming scandal, critics say, those ties have re-emerged, as relevant as ever. The positive tests were reported to WADA in March of 2021. That they were never publicly disclosed, and that China’s “contamination” conclusion was accepted, with the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics less than a year away was “no coincidence,” as U.S. swim coach Greg Meehan and many others alleged.

Tygart, speaking at a roundtable discussion with three reporters and three former Olympic swimmers who joined him on Capitol Hill Thursday, clarified: “I'm not suggesting there was some quid pro quo; I don't know that.”

But, when asked whether WADA’s handling of the case amounted to a “business decision,” he said: “I can assure you, the pressure you get to not do something that's gonna impact the brand of sport ... is tremendous.”

He also twice pointed to the nearly $2 million that China donated to WADA in 2018 and 2019. All governments pay annual dues — and the U.S. contributes more than any other country — but these were targeted donations, above and beyond China’s roughly $430,000 annual payment, that would go toward WADA’s new intelligence and investigations department.

Tygart called that “ironic.”

WADA general secretary Olivier Niggli said Monday that the payments were made “in total transparency. And frankly, [that] has absolutely nothing to do with what we are discussing today.” He understood the optics, “but,” he said, “I have absolutely no problem with the relationship we have with China.”

Tygart also said, seemingly confirming a Monday Associated Press report, that WADA had signed a sponsorship deal with Chinese sportswear giant Anta — which also sponsors the Chinese Olympic committee and Chinese swimming federation.

He noted that USADA has “flatly rejected” similar offers — “we've turned away hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars from the pharmaceutical industry, from the supplement industry, from the sports industry” — to avoid conflicts of interest.

“The appearance of that conflict and impropriety is as high as it can be,” Tygart said. “And that's what undermines the trust of athletes who are relying on the global regulator to be unbiased and free of any interest in the execution of their role.”

Neither Tygart nor the three U.S. swimmers — Katie Meili, a 2016 Olympic medalist and current USA Swimming board member; Caitlin Leverenz Smith, a 2012 Olympic medalist and chair of USA Swimming’s Athletes’ Advisory Council; and Allison Wagner, USADA’s head of athlete engagement — outright accused the Chinese swimmers of doping. But they all cited the lack of a WADA investigation back in 2021, and flaws in the process.

“We don't know if it was intentional doping or contamination of some sort — because we don't have the file or the facts,” Tygart said. “That’s what needs to be investigated.”

“Even assuming that they weren't [doping],” Meili said, “there's still massive issues.”

WADA, in its news release, said said that, separate from Cottier’s investigation, it would soon “send a compliance audit team to China in order to assess the current state of its anti-doping program as part of the Agency’s regular compliance monitoring program. For added reassurance, WADA will invite a number of independent auditors from the broader anti-doping community to join the audit team on that mission.”

Tygart, when asked about that audit, responded, in part: “Why are they doing that now? They should’ve done that [in 2021].”