Ahead of the Olympics, the World Anti-Doping Agency is facing a crisis of confidence

Two months before the start of the Olympics in Paris, the global agency tasked with policing doping in sport faces a growing crisis as it fends off accusations that it helped hide the positive tests of elite Chinese swimmers who later competed and won. medals – at the last Summer Games.

The allegations are particularly galling for the World Anti-Doping Agency, which has long presented itself as the gold standard in the global clean sports movement, because they raise the specter that the agency – and by extension the entire system set up to try to maintain clean the Olympics: you can't trust them.

Athletes openly question whether WADA can be trusted to carry out its main job of ensuring a level playing field in Paris, where some of China's own swimmers are favorites to win more medals.

And in recent days, pressure on WADA has increased significantly, particularly from the United States, which is a major funder of the agency, and as new questions have emerged over WADA's appointment of an independent prosecutor to investigate the allegations, and whether WADA provided an accurate account to the public of the appointment, according to interviews and documents reviewed by The New York Times.

On Wednesday, the Biden administration's top anti-doping official – who is also a member of WADA's executive board – sent a scathing letter to the anti-doping agency explaining how it needs to appoint a truly independent commission to investigate how the positive tests were handled and demanding that its executive council hold an emergency meeting within the next 10 days.

“I would like to highlight the extreme concern I have heard directly from American athletes and their representatives on this issue,” the official, Dr. Rahul Gupta, wrote in the letter, which was sent on Biden administration letterhead. “As I have shared with you, athletes have expressed that they are heading into the Olympic and Paralympic Games with serious concerns about whether the playing field is level and the competition is fair.”

That same day, the senator in charge of the subcommittee that provides funding to WADA, Chris Van Hollen, Democrat of Maryland, said: “We need answers before we support future funding.” (The United States contributes more to WADA's budget – committing more than $3.6 million this year – than any other nation; the International Olympic Committee matches everything the United States gives.)

Then on Friday, a congressional aide said a bipartisan House committee investigating the Chinese Communist Party began reviewing the positive tests.

Lilly King, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and member of USA Swimming's Athlete Advisory Council, said she no longer trusts that WADA is doing its job to keep athletes who violate anti-doping rules out of the Games.

“I'm not sure when I get up on the blocks that the people to my right and my left are clean,” Ms. King said in a telephone interview Friday. “And that's really a shame, because that's not something I should be focusing on while competing in the Olympics.”

Mounting pressure and growing concerns about the credibility of Olympic competitions have been met with silence from the two groups that represent a major part of the International Olympic Committee's revenue: its main broadcaster and sponsors.

NBC, whose broadcast rights payments represent a significant portion of the IOC's total budget, did not respond to a question about whether it was confident it would broadcast an Olympics in which viewers could trust that the athletes they were watching would be clean.

The multimillion-dollar Olympic sponsors – Visa, Airbnb, Coca-Cola and Intel – did not respond to messages seeking comment on whether they were concerned about linking their brands to Games where athletes have expressed concerns about cheating. Allianz, a German financial services company, also declined to comment.

The New York Times reported last month that WADA failed to enforce its own rules after 23 elite Chinese swimmers all tested positive for the same banned drug in 2021, months before the last Summer Olympics. The drug – trimetazidine, known as TMZ – is a prescription heart drug, but it is popular among athletes looking for an edge because it helps them train harder, recover faster and moves quickly through the body, making it more difficult to detect.

Two days after the Times article was published, WADA President Witold Banka and other top agency officials held a press conference during which they said they had no choice but to accept the anti-doping agency's explanation Chinese for positive tests. The Chinese agency said all the swimmers had inadvertently ingested the drug because they ate food from a kitchen contaminated by TMZ.

In the following days, WADA published a long document in which it once again attempted to justify its decision.

But neither move satisfied athletes, sports officials and anti-doping officials perplexed by WADA's apparent reluctance to pursue its own investigation into the positive tests. However, a few days after the news became public, WADA appointed a special prosecutor, Eric Cottier, to review its handling of the case.

That decision also quickly drew criticism.

Mr. Cottier is a former attorney general for Vaud, a Swiss region that has become the center of international sport and is home to several sports organizations, including the IOC. But interviews showed that Mr Cottier had been appointed to lead the investigation by the WADA official in charge of overseeing the agency's intelligence and investigations department at the time the Chinese swimmers tested positive.

Auditor Jacques Antenen was head of the Vaud police under Mr Cottier when he was Vaud attorney general. In a telephone interview on May 3, Antenen said he had contacted Olivier Niggli, WADA's most senior administrator, in the days after the positive tests were disclosed to suggest that Mr. Cottier might be a good choice to lead the investigation.

“I didn't recommend it; I just said if you need someone, it's a good choice,” Mr. Antenen said. He said he didn't know if others were being considered for the role.

Regardless of Cottier's skills and qualifications, his physical proximity to figures close to WADA, the IOC and the sports movement is problematic, governance experts said.

Cottier and Christoph de Kepper, director general of the IOC, were among people who celebrated Antenen's retirement from the police force at a party in 2022. The IOC contributes half of WADA's $40 million annual budget.

The celebration, which was published in the police service's internal magazine, was first reported by The Associated Press. A caption with a photo of two men in the magazine reads: “Attorney General Eric Cottier has come to say goodbye to his old friend Jacques Antenen.”

A WADA spokesman, James Fitzgerald, said his agency had, in fact, contacted Mr Antenen first, to ask him “if he knew of anyone with the credentials, independence and availability necessary to carry out a thorough review of WADA's management on this case. “

“These attempts to tarnish the integrity of a highly regarded professional just as he begins his work are becoming increasingly ridiculous and are designed to undermine the process,” Fitzgerald said.

There are also new questions about WADA's public statements regarding Mr. Cottier's appointment. In a statement to the Times, WADA said it discussed Cottier's appointment with his board before formally appointing him to the role.

But Dr. Gupta's Office of National Drug Control Policy said in a statement that shortly before formally announcing Mr. Cottier's hiring in April, WADA told its board that an investigator had already been chosen .

Dr. Gupta said in his letter to WADA that he was “deeply concerned” that the executive board “has not been adequately briefed with essential information throughout this process.”

Current and former athletes are now calling for more testing around the world ahead of the Paris Games, but have acknowledged that their concerns about the global anti-doping regulator are unlikely to be allayed in time for the opening ceremony.

Ms. King, the American swimmer, said that when she learned of the undisclosed positive tests, she felt as if this was a replay of her experience at the 2016 Rio Olympics, when she won a gold medal in the 100-meter breaststroke on a distance Russian swimmer Yulia Efimova, who had failed a drugs test earlier that year but was allowed to compete after the result was overturned on appeal.

Katie Meili, an athlete representative on USA Swimming's board of directors and a bronze medalist in that meet behind King and Efimova, said the athletes have “put a lot of trust in WADA.”

“Yes, positive tests are a concern, and that is a bad thing,” he said. “But even more worrying to me is that the international regulator is not doing its job.”

Amy Chang Chien contributed to the research.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *