Top Chinese Swimmers Tested Positive for Banned Drug, Then Won Olympic Gold

Twenty-three top Chinese swimmers tested positive for the same powerful banned substance seven months before the Tokyo Olympic Games in 2021 but were allowed to escape public scrutiny and continue to compete after top Chinese officials secretly cleared them of doping and the global authority charged with policing drugs in sports chose not to intervene.

Several of the athletes who tested positive — including nearly half of the swimming team that China sent to the Tokyo Games — went on to win medals, including three golds. Many still compete for China and several, including the two-time gold medalist Zhang Yufei, are expected to contend for medals again at this year’s Summer Games in Paris.

China acknowledged the positive tests in a report by its antidoping regulator, saying the swimmers had ingested the banned substance unwittingly and in tiny amounts, and that no action against them was warranted.

But an examination by The New York Times found that the previously unreported episode sharply divided the antidoping world, where China’s record has long been a flashpoint. American officials and other experts said the swimmers should have been suspended or publicly identified pending further investigation, and they suggested that the failure to do so rested with Chinese sports officials; swimming’s international governing body, World Aquatics; and the World Anti-Doping Agency, the global authority that oversees national drug-testing programs.

Those authorities decided not to act despite an email exchange between a Chinese antidoping official and a top world swimming official appearing to indicate that a violation may have taken place and would, at the least, have to be publicly acknowledged.

Even after other national and international antidoping officials repeatedly provided the global regulator, known as WADA, with intelligence suggesting a cover-up and doping by Chinese swimmers, the agency chose not to try to hold the athletes accountable, asserting “a lack of any credible evidence” to challenge China’s version of events. WADA defended its decision not to take action, calling the criticism unsubstantiated.

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