Inside anti-doping’s civil war: anger and suspicion spill into the open

aAt its glitzy 25th anniversary gala in Lausanne last month, the World Anti-Doping Agency showed a slick montage highlighting how it had changed the sport for the better. There were images of Muhammad Ali challenging Parkinson’s disease to light the Olympic flame and Pelé lifting the World Cup, before a history lesson – and a promise. “Today, Wada is a more representative, accountable and transparent organization,” the director general said. Olivier Niggli“where athletes are really at the heart of everything we do.”

Not everyone in the room bought it – one source thought it was too PR-oriented, while another raised eyebrows when Thomas Bach – the president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) – and former Wada president Sir Craig Reedie received prizes. Wada’s frustrations, however, were largely limited to hallway conversations. It turned out to be the relative calm before the thermonuclear storm.

Everything then changed last Saturday when an ARD/New York Times investigation revealed that 23 Chinese swimmers had tested positive for the banned heart drug trimetazidine (TMZ) before the Tokyo Olympics – only to be quietly cleared after China’s Anti-Doping Agency found a hotel. kitchen was contaminated. As if that wasn’t explosive enough, US Anti-Doping CEO Travis Tygart then pointed the finger at Wada and Chinada for “sweeping those positives under the rug by failing to enforce global rules fairly and to be followed evenly’. apply to everyone in the world.”

Tygart has the form to speak his mind – especially about Russia – and Wada tends to ignore him or give an unkind response. Not this time. Instead, it retaliated by accusing Tygart of “outrageous, completely false and defamatory comments.”

And with that, years of pent-up frustration, suspicion and anger – on both sides – came out. A week later, the anti-doping civil war shows no signs of abating. And there is a growing feeling that this row is not just about the fate of 23 Chinese swimmers, but also about the heart and soul of the anti-doping movement.

But first those swimmers – and why Wada didn’t dispute the Chinese authorities’ findings. On this point, Wada’s position is clear but controversial. It says it had “no evidence to challenge the environmental contamination scenario that led to Chinada closing these cases in June 2021” – and that it was advised by external counsel that it would pursue any appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport ( Cas) would lose. to such a challenge.

However, Tygart’s Usada and its allies claim that Wada is not transparent and has not shown enough investigative diligence, and question why it has not pressed Chinese intelligence services about why it took two months to find TMZ in the hotel kitchen. As Rob Koehler, the CEO of the pressure group Global Athlete, puts it: “The athletes I speak to are seriously pissed off, they are discouraged and they want accountability and answers. Athletes feel That because they once again feel that they are being held to a higher standard than powerful countries.”

Richard Ings, the former chairman of the Australian Anti-Doping Agency, rejects any idea of ​​serious misconduct by Wada. “I don’t believe that an organization like Wada would cover up doping cases in China,” he says. “Wada is quite burned with Russia. I think it is unlikely that they will be surprised again with another country. What makes the most sense is that Wada received a report from Chinada and given the restrictions regarding Covid travel, they took further legal advice and decided that any challenge in Cas would not prevail.

“I think it’s important to remember that World Aquatics had the same mandate and the same right of appeal, but they didn’t do that either.”

What does the case say about the broader anti-doping system? To answer that, the Observer spoke to more than a dozen senior anti-doping officials, attorneys and officials, most on a confidential basis. Although there was little consensus, some trends emerged.

The first was the general feeling that Wada was shouting less about pursuing deception than before. As one senior figure put it: “Wada is not talking about kicking down the doors of dirty athletes. From a generous perspective, it’s instead trying to establish a compliance regime that actually gives them a sense of who the bad people are.”

World Anti-Doping Agency President Witold Banka attends the 2024 Wada Symposium in Lausanne. Photo: Denis Balibouse/Reuters

That, they admitted, wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. “But,” they added, “is Wada any good? I’m not convinced. I think there are good people there. I love Günter Younger, of intelligence and investigations. But apart from that, there seems to be a sense of plodding along.”

In a statement, Wada rejected suggestions that it was too focused on compliance rather than catching deception: “It is not a case of one or the other.”

Second, as many have noted, it’s worth remembering that Tygart and Wada have a history. The American was Wada’s most outspoken critic during the Russian doping scandal, when he accused it of being too slow to investigate allegations of state-sponsored doping, questioned its close relationship with the IOC and condemned it for did not do enough to protect clean athletes. .

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Yes, he upset a lot of people in Wada and the IOC. But Tygart was right. Can you really blame him for raising the alarm here too? However, his opponents believe his comments are part of a broader geopolitical conflict between the United States and China – and reject the idea that China is Russia Mark II.

It is also worth remembering that when the US government passed the Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act in 2020, relations were further strained. The law allows the U.S. to target doping networks — including doctors, coaches and drug suppliers — involved in international competitions where American athletes compete — that infiltrate Wada territory.

A third trend: not everyone is happy with Witold Banka’s stewardship since he took over Wada in 2020. Some were surprised that he extended his initial presidential term last year from three to six years, with one source saying it “angered people immensely. ”.

Others wondered if the latest feud showed he wasn’t smart enough to keep the likes of Tygart, who has a track record of catching cheaters, in check. As another source puts it: “The job is great for him. Is he suitable for the job? I do not think so.”

Some also believe Wada’s criticism of Tygart showed the organization is less tolerant of dissent, but that was dismissed by a spokesperson. “Wada is used to constructive criticism and reasonable commentary,” they said. “However, when you are openly accused of bias against a particular country and of covering up doping, without even a shred of supporting evidence, this is no longer reasonable and we are obliged to defend ourselves against such attacks, many of which are political motivated.”

For good measure, the spokesperson also dismissed any suggestion that Wada lacked the appetite to go after powerful countries. “That couldn’t be further from the truth,” she added. “We always stand ready to confront and stop those who want to cheat the system, wherever they come from.”

In the meantime, don’t expect a detente anytime soon. On Thursday, Wada announced an independent investigation into its handling of the case of 23 Chinese swimmers. USADA’s answer? You might wonder if it would really be independent.

It’s all a far cry from the events of the 25th anniversary gala a month ago. That evening, Banka told delegates: “Together we will raise the game and usher in the next quarter century with a single mission as one team.” Now, though, that team feels more divided than ever.