Qin Haiyang is on China's Olympic roster. GETTY IMAGES

The doping scandal that hit the World Anti-Doping agency last April involving 23 Chinese athletes who failed repeated drug tests, as reported by The New York Times, keeps snowballing with the latest announcement by the Asian superpower.

After another round of revelations by the American newspaper last Friday, were it detailed that at least three of the swimmers featured in its first account of testing positive for the heart enhancer trimetazidine in 2020 were repeat offenders from 2016 and 2017, both WADA and Chinese authorities lashed back at what they have deemed “sensationalist, inaccurate, politicised and ethically questionable” media coverage.

The back-and-forth between WADA, China and those who criticise the global watchdog’s alleged mishandling of the doping case has been harsh, especially so regarding US-based news outlets, federations, agencies and athletes, and less than ideal just 37 days before the scheduled inauguration ceremony of Paris 2024.

However, China went a step further on Tuesday, as it named its Olympic Games roster and had no problem pushing the envelope by selecting a starting football team’s worth of athletes on the high-profile suspect list, which included butterfly specialist Zhang Yufei, who won two golds in the Tokyo 2021 Games, multiple world champion and 200m breaststroke record-holder Qin Haiyang and Wang Sun, another gold medallist.

After the most recent report by The Times, stating that three of the swimmers who had failed drug tests showing traces of trimetazidine had also been involved in previous positive tests results for the steroid clenbuterol, Chinese authorities fired back with a statement sent to AFP, claiming that its journalists had "misinterpreted the positive findings for clenbuterol caused by meat contamination as intentional doping by the athletes."

The Chinese Anti-Doping Agency alleged that the trio of swimmers, which included two 2021 Olympic gold medallists and a current world record holder, had ingested the substance inadvertently through contaminated meat. The theory has been harshly disputed by many in the sporting world, and most vehemently by the US Anti-doping agency, as well as American officials and athlete-led pressure groups. USADA chief Travis Tygart went as far as to label WADA’s non-action “a potential cover-up”.

Zhang Yufei is on China's 2024 Olympic roster. GETTY IMAGES
Zhang Yufei is on China's 2024 Olympic roster. GETTY IMAGES

Once the news broke in April, global outrage was rampant and forced WADA to announce plans to send a compliance audit team to China to "assess the current state of the country's anti-doping programme". The Asian superpower, which is expected to compete against historic rivals United States and Australia in the Olympic swimming tournament, has failed to disclose further details on said investigation, plainly stating that it "consistently adhered to the firm stance of zero tolerance for doping."

According to foreign ministry spokesman Lin Jian, the country has "resolutely safeguarded the physical and mental health of athletes, safeguarded fair competition in sports competitions, and has made positive contributions to the unified global fight against doping."

The Times specified on Friday that it was Qin, Wang and another swimmer among the original 23 who also tested positive for clenbuterol before and after the Rio 2016 Games. In both cases, Chinese authorities claimed that the athletes had ingested the substance inadvertently through contaminated meat. WADA, who explained on Friday that the levels of clenbuterol were between "six and 50 times lower" than the minimum reporting level currently used by the agency, accepted the explanation at the time and no disciplinary action was taken, allowing said athletes to compete in big-time international events.

The apparent mishandling of the case by WADA has been heavily criticised worldwide, notably in other high-level swimming countries like Germany, where the independent association Athleten Deutschland and the National Anti-Doping Agency (NADA) have expressed their dissatisfaction.

China’s doping authorities, however, have effectively doubled-down on their pushback with their latest Paris 2024 call-up after threatening to take the Times to court if needed. "CHINADA deplores and rejects this and reserves its right to take legal action as appropriate against the New York Times and other media for their reports and statements that are contrary to basic facts," the agency’s Monday statement concluded.