Home News U.S. Justice Department launches criminal investigation into Chinese doping

U.S. Justice Department launches criminal investigation into Chinese doping

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The U.S. Justice Department has launched a criminal investigation into how anti-doping agencies and sports officials allowed elite Chinese swimmers who tested positive for banned drugs at the last Olympics to escape punishment and win a slew of medals, including three golds, according to two people familiar with the matter and swimming’s international governing body.

The decision to launch a criminal investigation is a major escalation in U.S. efforts against China, the world anti-doping agency and the Olympic movement, casting a shadow of crime over the Summer Olympics due to open in Paris later this month.

Eleven of the swimmers who tested positive are returning to China’s Olympic team and have never been banned for doping. Several are expected to win medals again.

Just over two months before the investigation was revealed, the New York Times revealed that the World Anti-Doping Agency and the China Anti-Doping Agency Refuse to punish 23 outstanding Chinese swimmers An athlete tested positive for doping in early 2021. The decision not to ban these athletes and keep the test results secret paved the way for the swimmers to compete and medal at the Tokyo Olympics.

The FBI was informed of the positive drug tests and the athletes’ acquittals last year, and federal investigators have taken steps in recent weeks to learn more about what happened, The New York Times reported. But it’s unclear whether a full criminal investigation has been launched.

The executive director of World Swimming, swimming’s international governing body, was in Indianapolis last month for the U.S. Olympic trials when federal investigators approached him to discuss how to handle the positive test results, according to two people familiar with the matter who declined to be identified because they were discussing an ongoing investigation.

It is unclear what Brent Nowitzki, the swimming association’s executive director, said during his interactions with authorities. Nowitzki took office in June 2021, a few days after Chinese authorities notified WADA and the World Swimming Federation of their decision not to consider a positive test result as an anti-doping rule violation.

As part of his dealings with investigators, Mr. Nowitzki received a grand jury subpoena, according to a statement from the World Aquatics Organization.

“World Swimming can confirm that its executive director, Brent Nowitzki, has received a witness subpoena from the US government,” World Swimming said. “He is in the process of arranging a meeting with the government, which will likely avoid the need to testify before a grand jury.”

It is unclear how helpful Nowitzki will be to investigators: He joined swimming’s governing body months after testing positive, and China has already provided WADA with a dossier explaining how and why it cleared its athletes.

The World Aquatics Federation’s statement was first reported Thursday by The Associated Press.

There is also evidence that officials from the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) knew that US authorities were taking enforcement action against them. Late last month, WADA cancelled a meeting with other anti-doping agencies and sports officials that was scheduled to take place in the United States later this year.

In a conference call announcing the cancellation, a WADA official said one of the reasons the meeting was called off was that the organization’s leaders did not want to travel to the United States because of an ongoing federal enforcement investigation, said Travis Tygart, the head of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. Tygart, one of WADA’s most outspoken critics, did not participate in the call, but one of his deputies did.

The federal investigation is being led in part by authorities in Boston, according to two people familiar with the matter, who said authorities have interviewed at least two witnesses.

The escalation of the case may be the result of the United States’ Legislation known as the “Rochenkov Laws” WADA will criminalize doping in any top international sporting event held in 2020. The investigation will be the first time U.S. authorities have focused on an international sports body under the bill. WADA has criticized the bill since it was first proposed, arguing that criminalizing doping in one country would undermine WADA’s efforts to maintain one set of rules for all sports.

The core issue in the swimming case is that WADA agreed with China’s claim that athletes testing positive for a banned substance, a prescription heart drug, were the result of a “massive contamination incident.” But some other anti-doping experts and authorities have called that claim highly suspicious and charged that the lack of punishment and public identification of the athletes indicated a massive cover-up.

In response, Congress passed Calls for FBI investigation and congressional committees have also begun investigations, including a hearing last week at which Michael Phelps, the most decorated swimmer in Olympic history, testified underscoring the need for accountability.

Since news of the 23 cases first became public, WADA anti-doping officials have gone to great lengths to protect the organization’s reputation and defend its handling of the cases. They have held numerous meetings with relevant groups, including hundreds of athletes and national anti-doping agencies. Those efforts have failed to allay many of the concerns, and WADA has not released any of the information it relied on to make its initial decisions.

An independent prosecutor hired by the World Anti-Doping Agency to investigate its decision-making is due to issue a report before the Olympics, but even that may not be enough to quell controversy ahead of the Games, as there are concerns about the independence of the Swiss official hired to hold the post.

World Swimming Federation officials were at pains to emphasize that they were providing information as witnesses and were not the subject of a federal investigation. The World Anti-Doping Agency declined to comment.

The stakes and timing of the U.S. investigation are particularly high given the country’s relationship with the International Olympic Committee. After Paris, Los Angeles will host the next Summer Olympics in 2028, while Salt Lake City was given priority by the IOC to bid for the 2034 Winter Olympics.

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