Chinese generosity in lead-up to cleared doping tests reflects its growing influence on WADA

In the two years before the World Anti-Doping Agency signed off on clearing 23 Chinese swimmers of intentionally taking performance enhancers, that country’s government contributed nearly $2 million above its yearly requirements to WADA programs, including one designed to strengthen the agency’s investigations and intelligence unit.

The Associated Press obtained confidential minutes from meetings of the WADA executive committee that lists China as having given $993,000 in 2018 and $992,000 in 2019, two years that led to one of its Olympians being elected as one of the agency’s vice presidents.

The Chinese contributions were part of a pattern that illustrates the country’s growing influence on the drug-fighting agency at about the same time WADA’s relationship with its biggest contributor, the United States, was fraying.

There is no indication from the documents AP reviewed that China donated the money in expectation of a quid pro quo to gloss over positive drug tests. In fact, WADA didn’t hide the extra funding; it put out a little-noticed news release in December 2020 announcing China’s $992,000 donation.

“All this was done in total transparency,” WADA director general Olivier Niggli said Monday during a news conference to discuss the case. “And frankly, the (question) has absolutely nothing to do with what we are discussing today. So, the optics is a question (I appreciate), but I have absolutely no problem with the relationship we have with China.”

The main part of WADA’s budget each year comes from a 50-50 split between governments of the world and the Olympic movement. China’s additional contributions came on top of $430,000 its government supplied WADA as part of the routine payments in 2019.

The U.S. gave the largest regular contribution that year — $2.51 million, but that came as its relationship with WADA was growing tense.

By 2021, the U.S. was sparring with WADA over passage of a new law written to combat doping in response to the long-running drug scandal in Russia. It also was withholding part of its payment, with the country’s top government representative in the world anti-doping structure referencing “sorry state of affairs” that existed in WADA’s governance.

While the U.S. tangled with WADA, China was chipping in on what was essentially a fundraising effort by WADA to ramp up its fledgling intelligence and investigations (I&I) program, which played a role in the current case. One of the documents obtained by the AP references committee member Ugur Erdener briefing the panel in September 2020 about the program and telling members that “only China, as far as he knew, had made a donation of 500,000 US dollars.”

That amount would grow to $992,000 by the end of 2020 — nearly three-quarters of the money received for the program to that point, and an amount surpassed only by India when it contributed $1 million a year later, according to WADA’s 2021 annual report.

That China was about to host the 2022 Winter Olympics and India was on board to host a key IOC meeting could have played into the donations.

The giving also came in the leadup to the November 2019 election of IOC member Yang Yang of China to WADA vice president. Yang was elected to her second three-year term in 2022.

Last year, according to another WADA document seen by the AP, the Chinese sports products company ANTA Sports signed a three-year deal to provide WADA-branded sports apparel. Among the other groups ANTA sponsors are China’s national swimming federation and the Chinese Olympic committee.

Last week, reporting by The New York Times and German broadcaster ARD revealed that WADA had cleared the Chinese swimmers of doping violations by accepting the Chinese anti-doping agency’s reasoning that the athletes had been exposed to a banned heart medication through contamination.

There was no public notice of the case, nor any provisional suspension, both of which are called for in the world anti-doping code. The quiet handling of the cases occurred about seven months before the Tokyo Olympics in 2021. Even a provisional suspension at that time could have put those swimmers’ eligibility for the games in jeopardy.

WADA used its news conference to defend and explain its process, saying in essence there was no effective way to win a case based on countering China’s claims that the swimmers had been subject to contamination.

“In the absence of any evidence of any sort of misconduct … I’m very confident we would have had close to a 0% chance in establishing” a case that the swimmers intentionally cheated, WADA general counsel Ross Wenzel explained.

Of the 23 Chinese swimmers who tested positive, 13 competed in Tokyo and four of those 13 won medals. Many of the athletes still compete for China and are expected to swim at this year’s Paris Olympics.

According to the executive committee notes, the program China donated to was part of an effort to strengthen WADA’s I&I activities and had potential for up to $5 million in funding. At a 2019 meeting, IOC President Thomas Bach had committed the Olympic body to matching government contributions up to $2.5 million.

But about a year later, according to Erdener, the Turkish IOC member who reported on the fundraising, only China had stepped up to pay.

By the end of 2021, according to WADA’s annual report, the I&I program had received a total of $3.53 million from nine countries’ governments. In addition to India’s $1 million, Canada, which is the home of WADA, donated $748,000. Saudi Arabia gave $500,000, and none of the other five countries gave more than $108,000.


AP Sports Writer Graham Dunbar in Geneva contributed to this report.


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