Reports from NYT & ARD Reveal New Info About 23 TMZ-Positive Tests From Chinese Swimmers

On the eve of 2024 Chinese Nationals, an article in the Herald Sun reported that 23 Chinese swimmers tested positive for trimetazidine (TMZ) in the lead up to the Tokyo Olympic Games but were not sanctioned due to contamination — a decision the Chinese anti-doping agency (CHINADA) made and the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) upheld.

A day later, both the NY Times and ARD, Germany’s public broadcaster, have released their own reports that contain more details about the original source of the contamination and the disagreement between various anti-doping agencies over how the situation was handled.

TMZ is used as a heart medication outside of the United States but it not approved for sale in the U.S by the Food and Drug administration. It has been on WADA’s list of banned substances since 2014.

In their article, the NY Times states that while they were in the process of reporting, they became aware that reporters from ARD were also working the story. The article says that “ARD shared some of its reporting and video footage with The Times and the two news organizations agreed to coordinate publication of their findings, which were arrived at independently.”

The NY Times article is based on a review of confidential documents, emails, the report the Chinese antidoping agency submitted to WADA, and interviews with various anti-doping experts.

The Contamination of the Samples

In CHINADA’s original report to WADA, which was obtained by both the NY Times and ARD, investigators traced the 23 positive tests back to when the athletes were all staying at the same hotel during the Chinese Long Course Invitational, held in Shijiazhuang City from December 31st, 2020 to January 3rd, 2021.

Investigators “found traces of trimetazidine in the extractor hood, on spice containers and in the drain,” in the hotel’s kitchen ARD reported, which was echoed in the NY Times report.

According to both news agencies, the report compiled by investigators “offered no evidence of how the drug got there, despite enlisting the help of China’s national police. But they [investigators] concluded that the swimmers had unwittingly ingested small amounts.”

Per the NY Times, the initial report shows that 60 tests were conducted on 39 swimmers—the top two swimmers in each event as well as other selected athletes.

In a statement made after both reports were published, WADA said they were notified in June 2021 of CHINADA’s original decision. After conducting their own review, which included reviewing the original case file and collecting additional research from independent experts, WADA “concluded that it was not in a position to disprove the possibility that contamination was the source of TMZ and it was compatible with the analytical data in the file.”

Professor Olivier Rabin, WADA Senior Director, Science and Medicine shed more light on WADA’s investigation, sharing that the contamination finding was supported by “consistently low concentrations of TMZ as well as no doping pattern with several athletes presenting multiple samples collected over the course of several days which fluctuated between negative and positive (and vice versa).”

As such, both CHINADA and WADA concluded that the athletes were not at fault. WADA acknowledged in their statement that they were not able to conduct on an on-site investigation due to the COVID-19 protocols in place at the time.

Independent experts consulted by the NY Times did not agree with the idea that low concentrations of TMZ solely support the theory that athletes ingested the TMZ unknowingly. The experts pointed out that there could be other reasons for the low levels, including being at the “end of the excretion period for the drug.”

This does not mean that the theory provided by CHINADA is false, but rather that it is not the only possibility. While the experts rejected the idea that the theory was the only possibility, they did not agree with each other on whether contamination was the most likely cause.

Dispute Among Anti-Doping Agencies

While WADA did not dispute CHINADA’s findings and “considered that an appeal was not warranted,” other anti-doping agencies like the International Testing Agency (ITA) and the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) disagreed.

The ITA is a Swiss-based group formed in 2018 which was created to manage anti-doping programs independently from governing organizations. They raised issues with WADA in 2022 over how the samples were reported. The ITA told the NY Times its own investigation “remained ongoing.”

The NY Times reported that “the results of the tests in Shijiazhuang were not reported to the computer management system that tracks all testing of athletes until March 15, 2021, two and a half months later. CHINADA said that WADA had allowed it to freeze the tests for a month after they were collected because of the pandemic.”

After review, WADA concluded that “proper procedures had been followed and there was no evidence of wrong-doing.”

It’s not unusual to freeze samples; the ITA itself is allowed to keep Olympic samples for up to 10 years after collection and recently began retesting samples from the 2016 Rio Olympics.

However, the NY Times states precedent has been set any positive test for TMZ “[prompts] an immediate temporary suspension except in the rarest circumstances—including the one China offered,” that athletes were unaware they were ingesting the banned substance. With that temporary suspension typically comes public disclosure, neither of which happened in this case.

Both the NY Times and ARD cite the Kamila Valieva case from the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics as an example for the way that WADA has handled these cases in the past. Valieva, a Russian figure skater, tested positive for TMZ and blamed contaminated food. Russian anti-doping authorities cleared Valieva to compete but WADA appealed that decision. Ultimately, Valieva was handed a four-year ban.

Precedent has been set in the pool as well. Sun Yang was banned for three months in 2014 after testing positive for TMZ. Madisyn Cox was initially given a two-year ban for testing positive for the substance. That ban was reduced to six-months after she traced the positive test back to a batch of contaminated vitamins, supporting her claim that she accidentally ingested the substance.

On Public Disclosure

Emails obtained by the NY Times between a legal official at CHINADA and a “counterpart at the world swimming association” show that the possibility of public disclosure was very much on CHINADA’s mind.

As reported by the NY Times, an email dated March 15, 2021—the same day the positive test were input into the computer management system—“cited existing rules and asked that ‘in order to protect athletes’ privacy and cooperate with the investigation, please keep athletes’ information and the case strictly confidential until it is publicly disclosed by CHINADA.’”

Other anti-doping agencies take issue with the way that public disclosure was handled in this case as well.

Travis T. Tygart, CEO of USADA, called the situation “‘a devastating stab in the back of clean athletes.’” He continued, “‘all of those with dirty hands in burying these positives and suppressing the voices of courageous whistle-blowers must be held accountable to the fullest extent of rules and law.’”

In the past, Tygart has had a different take on the public disclosure of positive tests. In 2019 after 90-year-old American cyclist Carl Grove was stripped of a world record after testing positive for epitrenbolone, which he blamed on contaminated meat. Tygart told the NY Times then that “he believed that ‘no fault’ cases like when tainted food, water, or medicine is ingested accidentally, should not be a violation or be publicly announced.’”

Timeline of Case, Based on NY Times, ARD, and WADA Statement

  • December 31st – January 3rd, 2021: Chinese Long Course Invitational takes place, where 60 samples are collected.
  • March 15, 2021: CHINADA logs 23 positive samples into computer management system. CHINADA officials also email with “world swimming association” asking to hold off publicly disclosing athletes names, according to emails obtained the NY Times.
  • April 2021: Two top WADA officials informed that Chinese swimmers tested positive, per the NY Times.
  • June 2021: CHINADA files initial report on their investigation into the positive samples.
  • 2022: ITA contacts WADA about misreporting of samples. (Note: The ITA told the NY Times it conducted it’s own investigations in 2021, 2022, 2023, “and up until today”)
  • April 2023: USADA contacts WADA by email, stating that per a source, positive TMZ cases had been covered up. Per WADA’s statement, the organization offered to reassess situation if USADA provided new evidence.

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Swimmingrules
1 month ago

Who actually tested positive? I can’t find the list.

too fly
Reply to  Swimmingrules
1 month ago

These are the names of the athletes who tested positive along with the count and color of Olympic & Worlds medals (since Tokyo) that have been implicated by the positive tests.

Zhang Yufei (🥇🥇🥈🥈Tokyo, 🥇🥇🥈 Fukuoka), Yang Junxuan (🥇🥈Tokyo, 🥇 Budapest, 🥉Fukuoka), Wang Shun (🥇Tokyo), Yan Zibei (🥈Tokyo, 🥇🥈Fukuoka), Qin Haiyang (🥇🥇🥇🥇 🥈Fukuoka), Wang Yichun (🥇 Fukuoka), Yu Yiting (🥉 Fukuoka, 🥇🥉Doha), Wang Jianjiahe, Peng Xuwei (🥉 Abu Dhabi [SC 2021], 🥉 Fukuoka), Ge Chutong (🥉Fukuoka), Sun Jiajun (🥈🥉Fukuoka), Yu Hexin, Fei Liwei, He Junyi, Chen Juner, Zhang Ziyang, Cheng Long, Wang Xueer, Lin Tao, Shen Jiahao, Wang Yutian, Wang Zhou, Zhang Ruixuan

sko dawgs
1 month ago

One thing that is made abundantly clear to top level athletes in all federations is that “YOU ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR WHAT YOU PUT IN YOUR BODY” regardless of the story with contamination, (which isnt entirely plausible due to the fact that sun yang popped for the same stuff several years earlier), it was the athletes that ingested the contaminant and they should be sanctioned accordingly…

Olympunks & Gamester Bullies
1 month ago

“On behalf of the Enhanced Games Committee, I declare the opening of the inaugural Enhanced Games.”

Sun Yang
Committee President

Bignowhere
1 month ago

Small correction: near the end of the first section the article refers to the:

“Chinese antidumping agency”

Steve Nolan
1 month ago

One thing that stood out about reading the full NYT story was just how scathing some of the language used was.

You get used to the usual journalistic “this side says this, this side claims this” sort of ‘even-handed’ reporting with most things (especially domestic stories) but goodness they were basically lighting China/WADA up with word choice alone.

(Part of this might be due to some sort of hawkish editorial bias towards China, idk. But it still stood out.)

I miss the ISL (Go dawgs)
Reply to  Steve Nolan
1 month ago

Good

moonlight
1 month ago

Chinese swimming = Kamila Valieva x 23.

Former swim dad
1 month ago

TMZ, MSG, it’s just Chinese food, relax.

FST
1 month ago

I know this is absolutely outrageous and awful and the worst. And they should be punished and all that jazz. I know it and I feel it. But also… I kinda love how messy it is. This is pretty entertaining as far as doping news gets. Like hammer-level entertaining. Warring anti-doping agencies… Insane.

About Sophie Kaufman

Sophie Kaufman

Sophie grew up in Boston, Massachusetts, which means yes, she does root for the Bruins, but try not to hold that against her. At 9, she joined her local club team because her best friend convinced her it would be fun. Shoulder surgery ended her competitive swimming days long ago, …

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