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World Anti-Doping Agency officials stayed silent about Olympic doping scandal

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

An Olympic doping scandal that made headlines over the weekend has now turned into a "CSI"-style mystery involving forensic data, Chinese security officials and allegations of an international cover up. At a press conference today, officials with the World Anti-Doping Agency acknowledged keeping quiet about 23 Chinese swimmers who tested positive for a powerful performance-enhancing drug. But they said the evidence shows those athletes were innocent. NPR's Brian Mann joins us here to update us. Hi, Brian.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.

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KELLY: So I just had to check my calendar because the Paris Summer Games are, of course, in the summer, so still three months away. This is a doping controversy from a prior Olympics?

MANN: Yeah, that's right. It turns out two dozen elite Chinese swimmers tested positive for this drug trimetazidine, known commonly as TMZ, way back in 2021 ahead of the Tokyo Summer Olympics. But WADA - that's the World Anti-Doping Agency - and Chinese officials kept those tests quiet until now, and they didn't suspend those athletes. That sparked a firestorm of criticism and new questions about Olympics' ability to police itself. Speaking today, WADA President Witold Banka defended his organization's handling of this case.

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WITOLD BANKA: At every stage, WADA followed all due process and diligently investigated. If we had to do it in the - over again now, we would do exactly the same thing.

KELLY: Exactly the same thing - OK, how did this organization, WADA, come to investigate the case?

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MANN: Well, what's interesting here, Mary Louise, is that WADA now acknowledges that the main investigation of the case was actually handled by Chinese officials, an organization in China called CHINADA, who concluded that these athletes were contaminated with TMZ accidentally. According to the Chinese, trace amounts of this heavily regulated drug somehow made it into the kitchen of the hotel where these swimmers were staying. After reviewing China's forensic evidence and samples, WADA accepted that explanation.

KELLY: OK, now we're getting to the "CSI" part of this. How did this drug, TMZ, get into a hotel kitchen in China where these athletes were staying?

MANN: Yeah. During this press conference today, reporters pressed WADA officials on that question. Ross Wenzel is the organization's lead attorney, and he acknowledged the Chinese were never able to provide any theory for where this drug actually came from, if indeed it was an accidental contamination. Here he is.

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ROSS WENZEL: The ultimate source - how the TMZ got into the kitchen - was not discovered. CHINADA and the authorities conducted a number of interviews, but that didn't result in anything concrete.

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MANN: Wenzel said it was impossible for his organization to conduct its own investigation on the ground because of the COVID pandemic that was raging in China at the time. He then defended WADA's decision not to suspend these star Chinese athletes ahead of the Tokyo Games, where some of them went on to win gold medals.

KELLY: Brian, we've got not quite a minute left, but let me ask you how that explanation is being received by countries other than China.

MANN: Well, I want you to hear from one more guy, Travis Tygart, who heads the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. He's furious, and he doesn't believe this explanation.

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TRAVIS TYGART: To hear that it was in the exhaust fan of the kitchen of the hotel and that that was discovered by the Chinese minister's Office of Public Security, it just reeks of a cover up of what was going on.

MANN: U.S. athletes also issued a statement today saying they're disheartened and angry over this case. It's a big mess as we prep for Paris. And now the world's sports doping agencies are in turmoil.

KELLY: Thank you, Brian.

MANN: Thank you, Mary Louise.

KELLY: That's NPR's Brian Mann, who is also prepping for Paris. He'll be there covering the Summer Olympics for us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Brian Mann
Brian Mann is NPR's first national addiction correspondent. He also covers breaking news in the U.S. and around the world.