The New York Times building. GETTY IMAGES

The World Anti-Doping Agency hit back on Friday at the American newspaper’s report that it had known well before the Tokyo Olympics that swimmers from China had tested positive for clenbuterol, all the way back to 2016 before the Rio Games, calling its coverage “sensationalist and inaccurate”.

The global watchdog for clean sport originally came under intense scrutiny followingrevelations back in April that it had been aware of positive test results by 23 athletes from the Chinese swimming team but had not taken decisive action to prevent them from participating in the Tokyo 2021 Games. The controversial reports by The New York Times and German broadcaster ARD detailed that the swimmers had tested positive for a banned substance, trimetazidine, a prescription heart drug which can enhance performance, in the lead-up to said Olympics. Despite these findings, they were allowed to compete and win medals, raising suspicions of preferential treatment or oversight failures.Many of the same athletes are currently set to compete at the Paris 2024 Summer Games.

And now, the American newspapers points out that this was not a one-time deal. According to its latest report on Friday. three of those athletes who failed drug tests before the 2021 Olympics had tested positive for a powerful steroid, clenbuterol, several years earlier and did not receive a suspension either. They included two 2021 Olympic gold medallists and a current world-record holder, who failed drug tests in 2016 and 2017.

After Chinese authorities argued that the swimmers had ingested the substance inadvertently through contaminated meat, no disciplinary action followed and Swimming's international governing body, World Aquatics, apparently accepted the explanation without further investigation, per the Times report. “We can confirm that there were positive tests for clenbuterol in 2016 and 2017 that involved Chinese athletes,” the group, previously known as FINA, told reporters.

In response to a questionnaire sent by the Times, WADA issued a statement, also on Friday, in which it did not hold back its criticism of the media coverage. “On Thursday 13 June, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) received questions from the New York Times in relation to cases from 2016 and 2017 involving athletes from China who had tested positive for trace amounts of clenbuterol that they had ingested through meat contamination. Given the sensationalist and inaccurate way that the New York Times has covered the trimetazidine contamination cases of 23 Chinese swimmers from 2021, as well as the highly charged, politically motivated criticism of WADA and the global anti-doping system that followed, mainly from within the United States, WADA feels it is important to be able to describe the context and extent of clenbuterol contamination around the world so that people are not further misled,” the statement opened.

The agency went on to argue that clenbuterol, which is a prohibited substance in sport, is used in some countries as a growth promoter for farm animals and, under specific circumstances, can result in a positive sample from an athlete who consumes meat from animals treated in that way. The food contamination theory, which WADA had already alleged regarding the Tokyo 2021 positives, was again brought up in the 2016 case, as well as the notion that the amounts were insignificant. It was not made immediately clear, however, why said three cases were not made public at the time.

“The issue of contamination is real and well-known by the anti-doping community. Over the years, there have been thousands of confirmed cases of contamination in its various forms, including more than 1,000 for meat contamination in Mexico, China, Guatemala, Colombia, Peru, Ecuador and other countries. The athletes in question were three such cases. They were elite level swimmers who were tested on a very frequent basis in a country where meat contamination with clenbuterol is widespread so it is hardly surprising that they could be among the hundreds of athletes who also tested positive for tiny amounts of the substance. In each of these cases, the source of the clenbuterol was confirmed to be food contamination,” WADA Director General Olivier Niggli explained. “WADA’s Contaminants Working Group was created for the purpose of providing expert advice and recommendations to the global anti-doping community with regards to prohibited substances that can be prevalent contaminants. Over the years, the rules have been adjusted to ensure fairness for athletes who unintentionally ingest a prohibited substance, while protecting the system against those who are cheating. Studies have shown that if you spend much time in China, Mexico and some other countries, your chances of consuming clenbuterol in meat are very high”.

Regarding the 2016 and 2017 cases of group contamination in China, WADA argued that in each of those cases the concentration was between six and 50 times lower than the currently applicable minimum reporting level, and that reviews found that the athletes ingested meat that had been contaminated and found to be positive for clenbuterol.

World Anti-Doping Agency Swiss Director General Olivier Niggli. GETTY IMAGES
World Anti-Doping Agency Swiss Director General Olivier Niggli. GETTY IMAGES

WADA insisted that there had been no bias or wrongdoing in its handling of the case, which it deemed a political issue, almost a witch hunt. “The fact that the New York Times is only asking questions about China when meat contamination is an issue in many countries, shows again how this is an attempt to politicize anti-doping. From WADA’s perspective, we must assess each case on its individual merits regardless of the athlete’s nationality,” Niggli stated.

The back-and-forth by the international policing body, American media, the United States Anti-Doping agency and athlete-led pressure groups has been a constant since the reports first surfaced in April, but the Times’ most recent revelations have added fuel to the fire that was already burning within USADA and Global Athlete, among other associations.

"Unbelievable does not seem fitting enough for the (New York Times) report from today about WADA once again allowing China to sweep positive tests under the carpet," USADA chief executive Travis Tygart said in a statement emailed to AFP. "Athletes from around the world were held accountable to the rules in effect at the time but now the world learns that WADA allowed special treatment for a chosen few. How far and wide does this preferential treatment go? How many other countries or sports were given favourable treatment by WADA and allowed to circumvent the rules that apply to everyone else?"

Global Athlete chief Rob Koehler also stated that athletes had "zero confidence" in WADA and World Aquatics. "Athletes are tired of empty statements from WADA that divert from answering hard questions on why all of these cases were not made public," Koehler said. "Transparency is needed more than ever. Without transparency the anti-doping movement will crumble and athletes will never feel they have a level playing field."

With 41 days to go until the start of the Paris 2024 Olympics, the pressure for answers from WADA keep rising, as does the pushback from the agency in its quest to remain the global anti-doping authority for world sport, well beyond the Summer Games.