China’s Anti-doping Work Has Never Ended

Celebrity swimmer Sun Yang at the anti-doping public hearing at the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in Switzerland (source: ppsorts.com)

November this year is a big month for China’s anti-doping efforts. The first week of November saw former Winter Olympic champion Yang Yang elected as the vice president of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). Yang Yang became the first Chinese leader in WADA’s 20-year history. A week later, Sun Yang, a three-time Olympic gold medalist and celebrity swimmer who was accused of destroying his blood sample in an out-of-competition test last September, received his public hearing at the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in Switzerland. Sun insisted that he did not break the anti-doping rules and refused to let officers collect his samples as they did not provide “convincing credentials.” It was WADA that sent Sun to the hearing even though Fédération Internationale de Natation (FINA) concluded that Sun was innocent.

The hearing received a lot of attention globally. On the one hand, both Chinese swimming and Sun have prior doping offenses, and the result will decide whether they can be absolved of the moniker “drug cheat”. On the other hand, the credibility of WADA has been questioned a lot in recent years and the organization is yet to reestablish their trust among the public.

Chinese swimmers have a history of doping violations. Though the Chinese doping control center was instituted in the 90s, Chinese sports were already under the shadow of drug use. Among all sports, swimming was fraught with the most doping accusations, and the Chinese swimming team had been labeled as “the drug team.” In 1994, eleven Chinese athletes, among which seven were swimmers, tested positive for doping at the Hiroshima Asian Games. In 1998, Yuan Yuan, a breast-stroke swimmer who once won a silver medal at the 1994 World Championships in Rome, also added to the bad reputation of Chinese swimmers by hiding a banned bodybuilding hormone in her luggage, which resulted in a ban from the competition for four years.

The international backlash from these scandals motivated the Chinese government to adopt much more ambitious anti-doping measures. China signed the Copenhagen Declaration on Anti-Doping in Sport in 2003, and on March 1st, 2004, the State Council issued the “Code of Anti-doping in China”, which not only demonstrated the Chinese government’s determination to fight against drug use in Chinese society and in sport in particular, but also detailed the punishments for those involved in the illegal drug use.

The short-term effects of these efforts were that in 2006, no Chinese swimmer was found using drugs. But the path to regaining the trust of the international community remained rocky. In May 2008, Ouyang Kunpeng, China’s top male backstroker and China’s record holder in the 50m, 100m, and 200m backstroke, received a lifetime ban from the Chinese Swimming Association for a doping violation. Even though Ouyang was one of the most successful athletes, he was not exempt from punishment. As Li Hua, director of China’s Swimming Administration Center at the time stressed, while short-term progress is recognized, it is important that the regulatory agencies work constantly to eliminate all incidents.

In 2012, a 16-year-old female swimmer Ye Shiwen produced a record-breaking performance that incurred another round of international controversy. Ye received two gold medals in the 400m and 200m individual medley. The critics failed provide solid evidence against Ye, but the widespread suspicions reflected a general sense of distrust in Chinese swimmers.

Sun Yang’s case is interesting because he has repeatedly disputed the credentials of substance test sample collectors. In 2014, Sun received a three-month ban from China’s Swimming Association after testing positive for trimetazidine. Sun claimed that he did not take the drug intentionally, and that the positive result was due to the medicine he had taken that contained the substance to treat his heart problems.

Sun’s suspicion of the testers’ credentials came from the fact that he understood the high-stakes of the case and how it could impact his own career and the reputation of China’s swimming team. Before the hearing, Sun emphasized that he was innocent and he had been strictly following the relevant collection guidelines. It might be worth noticing that this is not the first time Sun raised his concern about the credential of testers and inspectors. He once had another disagreement with a tester regarding identification in 2017.

Disputing Sun’s account, WADA claimed the credentials of inspectors who were involved in the out-of-competition tests last September were in order and the Blood Sample Collection Guidelines are not mandatory or legally binding, which weakened Sun’s argument. Additionally, WADA also wondered why Sun reacted to this particular test and why Sun did not raise his questions before the sample was collected.

To prevent misquoting, Sun requested a hearing open to the public. The inspectors present at the hearing on behalf of WADA reportedly had unconvincing credentials, making any concrete decision more difficult to ascertain. The court did not make the final decision yet and the final conclusion might be delivered early next year.

For Sun, his career is in jeopardy, while the worldwide anti-doping machinery is facing a much higher level of accountability. Early this year, FINA published an investigation report that concluded that Sun had not violated any anti-doping rules, although Sun took a “foolish gamble” for allowing his sample to be smashed with a hammer. The disputes among athletes, FINA, and WADA revealed the fact that the current out-of-competition testing procedure needs clearer guidelines that can consistently implement a strict standard of compliance. A human rights lawyer and former Canadian Olympic Swimmer Nikki Dryden said, “I want to make sure that the next athlete who comes into this system and is being held to a strict liability level, that the authorities are held to the same standard.”

Besides the controversy Sun is experiencing, rumors swirled as to whether WADA gave some athletes preferable treatment. In 2016, the medical database of athletes was hacked and revealed that some American athletes were benefitting from therapeutic use exemptions to take banned drugs legally. While those American athletes were at the forefront of doping allegations, heated discussions ensued on whether WADA has a double-standard for athletes of different nationalities.

Additionally, different from other sports organizations that are independent from governments, WADA is formed by parties from both sport and governments and 50% of WADA’s budget is funded by member governments, which aroused people’s doubts over whether the government would respect clean competition. In the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, the Russian government was found funding national doping programs. Under the circumstances, Russian athletes who could prove themselves clean had to compete under a neutral flag in PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games. People around the world were shocked by how the doping test procedure was manipulated, and such findings were not made public until two years later.

The constant scandals like these questions the credibility and neutrality of WADA. Yang Yang, the new vice president of WADA, is tasked with fixing these managerial failures. After being elected, she said, “I feel very proud of both myself and my country. I am entrusted with this new responsibility thanks to the IOC and WADA’s confidence in my experience and ability. At the same time, I think it also shows the international society’s recognition of China’s efforts against doping.”

In two years, China will host the Winter Olympic Games. At this moment, China will certainly be as cautious as possible regarding the doping issue. Chinese people understand clearly, gold medals winners might be forgotten, but the damage brought by a doping scandal will last forever.