‘Extremely concerned’ Olympians will not let the Chinese doping allegations die

TOKYO, JAPAN - JULY 26: General view of heat four of the Women's 1500m Freestyle on day three of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre on July 26, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
TOKYO, JAPAN - JULY 26: General view of heat four of the Women's 1500m Freestyle on day three of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre on July 26, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images) (Tom Pennington via Getty Images)

The first 10 days of the Chinese anti-doping scandal that has rocked Olympic sport brought threats and accusations, “fact sheets” and diversions, and combative rhetoric that careened off the rails. There have been warringstatements, dense science and legalese. There are lingering questions and rampant speculation. And lost amid the furor, at times, is the collective voice of the most aggrieved.

“Athletes are getting even more frustrated,” Rob Koehler, the director general of Global Athlete, an advocacy group, told Yahoo Sports on Sunday.

On Monday and Tuesday, three key representative groups spoke up.

The World Players Association said in its first statement on the matter that the Chinese case had “sadly further undermined athlete trust and confidence in the global anti-doping effort.”

Two groups representing U.S. athletes, the Team USA Athletes’ Commission and USA Swimming’s Athletes’ Advisory Council, sent a letter to White House drug control chief Rahul Gupta requesting “a truly independent investigation into the cases of the 23 Chinese athletes who tested positive” for a banned substance, trimetazidine (TMZ), in 2021.

None of the 23 were punished, and the positive tests never disclosed — until the New York Times and German broadcaster ARD uncovered them this month. China’s anti-doping authority and the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) have been accused by prominent stakeholders, including the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), of orchestrating a “cover-up” and failing to enforce their own rules. WADA has fiercely denied the allegations, and defended its handling of the case. Many athletes, though, are unsatisfied.

“The decisions made by WADA, the way they were made, and the lack of transparency has undermined our confidence in WADA’s stated mission to ‘lead a collaborative worldwide movement for doping-free sport,’” the two U.S. groups wrote in their letter to Gupta. “As athletes, we have to trust WADA to set and enforce standards that will ensure fair play and protect our rights. WADA’s failure to follow its own rules and procedures in the wake of the positive tests of these 23 Chinese athletes has broken this trust.”

Koehler — who speaks regularly with athletes, most of them from Western countries — said that, “right now, confidence in the global anti-doping movement is, sadly, at its all-time low.”

The U.S. athletes wrote to Gupta because he sits on WADA’s 16-member executive committee. The committee was not informed about the Chinese case in 2021, multiple people familiar with the situation confirmed to Yahoo Sports; but now, in theory, it will help steer WADA’s next steps. It supported the appointment of what WADA called an “independent prosecutor” who will “conduct a thorough review of WADA’s handling of the matter.” In a statement, Gupta called the review “an important first step.”

But the U.S. athletes, echoing USADA and others, wrote that the review “appears to be a ‘check the box’ exercise that will be substantially limited and biased and thus fail to reveal the whole truth.”

In addition to “a truly independent investigation,” they asked for a broader audit and “an independent review that results in greater independence and oversight of WADA.”

World Players, an umbrella group representing unions across dozens of countries and sports, also targeted “the embedded failures in WADA’s rules, processes, and governance.”

“Longstanding systemic issues have plagued the anti-doping movement,” Matthew Graham, the head of World Players, said in a statement. “Athletes have faced unjust processes and sanctions, while officials have not been held to account, and there has been a lack of meaningful athlete involvement in the global anti-doping system.”

Insufficient athlete involvement has long been cited by critics of WADA, whose executive committee comprises five officials from sports governing bodies, five national government representatives, five independent seats and one Athlete Council chair. A previous Athlete Council chair, Beckie Scott, accused WADA officials of trying “to bully” her. External athlete groups have called for “sweeping reforms” that, Koehler said, have been “totally cast aside.”

Other athletes, meanwhile, are “afraid to speak up,” Koehler said, because “they fear retribution.”

The current WADA Athletes Council chair, Ryan Pini, was quoted in a WADA news release last week saying there is “broad support for WADA’s position on” the China case. The “one major issue,” his statement said, was that the names and “personal information” of Chinese swimmers — “who given the facts of this case, are entirely innocent and, in fact, victims of contamination without any fault or negligence on their side” — were leaked to the media.

Travis Tygart, USADA’s CEO, felt that this amounted to whistleblower intimidation — to “attacking the very people that you would want to have come talk to you.”

It fell in line with other WADA statements decrying “defamatory” comments and threatening legal action, and with what critics say is an organizational history of silencing dissent.

Koehler said that athletes have told him: “We have to be careful what we're saying, the last thing we want to do is be sued by WADA for going out and speaking.”

It’s clear, though, that athletes feel wronged and, at best, distrustful, so much so that they are willing to speak up, and not willing to let this scandal peter out.

At the 2021 Olympics, several athletes lost medals to Chinese swimmers who seven months earlier tested positive for the banned substance, but their deeper grievance appears to be with systemic flaws.

“In the U.S., [anti-doping] is one of our highest priorities in doing our sport; it seems like in other places — it's two standards,” Katie Meili, a former U.S. swimmer and 2016 Olympian, told Yahoo Sports and two other reporters last week. “And that's really frustrating. When the news of this story broke, I was upset, and frustrated, and mad, but I wasn't surprised.”

In their Monday letter to Gupta, the U.S. Athletes’ Commission and its swimming equivalent wrote: “Once again, we are heading into another Olympic and Paralympic games with serious concerns about whether the playing field is level and the competition fair.”

In general, they wrote, they are “extremely concerned.”

Graham, the World Players chief, concluded: “The response to this scandal must address fundamental root causes, not just symptoms, if WADA is to assert any legitimacy as a steadfast regulator of global anti-doping policy.”