Chinese swimmers win Gold in Tokyo 2021. GETTY IMAGES

Nearly half the Chinese Swimming Team was able to compete in the Tokyo Games despite previously testing positive for a banned substance, the NY Times reported on Saturday. Athletes allegedly benefited from a cover-up by local officials and lack of intervention from the international governing body.

Twenty-three of China’s swimmers were allowed to escape public scrutiny and continue to participate in international competition after being cleared of doping and enduring no further action from those charged with policing the sport, according to The Times report. Except for two-time gold medalist Zhang Yufei and a few others, the identities of the athletes who tested positive were not revealed; but the US newspaper reported than several went on to win medals in Japan, including gold, and are now back in the fold, with Paris 2024 on the horizon. Zhang would be among them.

The Asian superpower, who has a checkered past regarding doping allegations, was then already without three-time Olympic champion Sun Yang, who missed out on the Games after being suspended for refusing to give a blood sample to officials and tampering with a doping control, according to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. Other teammates, however, were allowed to compete in 2021, despite China’s acknowledgment of the positive tests by its anti-doping regulator.

The New York Times reported that the swimmers had tested positive at a domestic meet in late 2020 and early 2021 for a prescription heart drug that can enhance performance, but that local anti-doping authorities argued that they had ingested the banned substance unwittingly and in tiny amounts, and that no action against them was warranted. The daily cited a review of confidential documents and emails, including a report compiled by the Chinese anti-doping agency and submitted to its global counterpart WADA.

It said WADA and swimming's governing body World Aquatics decided not to act due to "a lack of any credible evidence" and declined pursuing the matter further after consulting scientists and external legal counsel. "Ultimately, we concluded that there was no concrete basis to challenge the asserted contamination," said WADA's senior director of science and medicine Olivier Rabin.

Just a year later, WADA’s stance changed dramatically when addressing Kamila Valieva’s case just before the Beijing 2022 Winter Games. Despite blaming contaminated food and testing for relatively low levels of the same substance, the Russian figure skater was slapped with a four-year suspension.

Zhang Yufei competes in Budapest in 2023. GETTY IMAGES
Zhang Yufei competes in Budapest in 2023. GETTY IMAGES

Chinese investigators had alleged that the country’s top swimmers were staying at the same hotel for a domestic meet, two months after they had tested positive, and reported finding trace amounts of the substance in the hotel’s kitchen but offered no evidence of how the drug got there. It was terrible timing for the Asian country, as it was set to host the Winter Games the following year, after enduring the Covid-19 pandemic.

World Aquatics confirmed to the Times that the cases had been subjected to independent expert scrutiny. "World Aquatics is confident that these AAFs (adverse analytical findings) were handled diligently and professionally, and in accordance with all applicable anti-doping regulations, including the World Anti-Doping Code," it said.

However, the United States Anti-Doping Agency said the swimmers should have been suspended and publicly identified, calling WADA's lack of action "a devastating stab in the back of clean athletes". The organization's chief executive, Travis T. Tygart, claimed he had provided WADA with allegations of doping in Chinese swimming multiple times since 2020. The FBI was aware of the alleged cover-up last year and, after receiving whistle-blower evidence, the International Testing Agency also proceeded with its own examination, that remains active.

Like many of its gold medals, China's Swimming history has been tainted with high-profile doping scandals that span well beyond cases like Sun Yang’s and all through the 1990s. In the 94’ Asian Games, seven swimmers tested positive for steroids; and in 1998, Yuan Yuan was banned after Australian customs officers discovered a large stash of human growth hormone in her bags at the World Championships in Perth. Back in 1994, Sung Yang also tested positive for the same substance involving Valieva and the 23 swimmers in The Times’ report.