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Ahead of Olympics, World Anti-Doping Agency Faces a Trust Crisis

Two months before the Olympics are scheduled to begin in Paris, the global agency tasked with policing doping in sports is facing a growing crisis as it fends off allegations it helped cover up the positive tests of elite Chinese swimmers who went on to compete — and win medals — at the last Summer Games.

The allegations are particularly vexing for the World Anti-Doping Agency, which has long billed itself as the gold standard in the worldwide movement for clean sports, because they raise the specter that the agency — and by extension the entire system set up to try to keep the Olympics clean — cannot be trusted.

Athletes are openly questioning whether WADA can be relied upon to do its core job of ensuring there will be a level playing field in Paris, where some of the same Chinese swimmers are favorites to win more medals.

And in recent days, pressure on WADA has increased significantly, particularly from the United States, which is one of the agency’s chief funders, and as new questions have emerged about WADA’s appointment of an independent prosecutor to investigate the allegations, and whether WADA has provided an accurate account to the public about the appointment, according to interviews and documents reviewed by The New York Times.

On Wednesday, the Biden administration’s top drug official — who is also a member of WADA’s executive committee — sent a stinging letter to the antidoping agency laying out how it needs to appoint a truly independent commission to investigate how the positive tests were handled and demanding that its executive board hold an emergency meeting within the next 10 days.

“Let me underscore the extreme concern I have been hearing directly from American athletes and their representatives on this issue,” the official, Dr. Rahul Gupta, wrote in the letter, which was sent on Biden administration letterhead. “As I have shared with you, the athletes have expressed they are heading into the Olympic and Paralympic Games with serious concerns about whether the playing field is level and the competition fair.”

That same day, the senator in charge of the subcommittee that provides funding to WADA, Chris Van Hollen, Democrat of Maryland, said, “We need answers before we support future funding.” (The United States contributes more to WADA’s budget — pledging more than $3.6 million this year — than any nation; the International Olympic Committee matches whatever the United States gives.)

Then on Friday, a congressional aide said that a bipartisan House committee investigating the Chinese Communist Party has begun looking into the positive tests.

Lilly King, a two-time Olympic gold-medalist and a member of U.S.A. Swimming’s Athletes’ Advisory Council, said that she no longer trusts that WADA is doing its job to keep athletes who violate antidoping rules out of the Games.

“I am not confident when I get up on the blocks that the people to my right and my left are clean,” Ms. King said in a telephone interview on Friday. “And that’s really unfortunate, because that’s not something I should have to focus on while racing at the Olympics.”

The mounting pressure and growing concerns about the credibility of Olympic competitions have been met with silence from the two groups that account for a major portion of the International Olympic Committee’s revenue: its chief broadcaster and sponsors.

NBC, whose broadcast rights payments comprise a significant portion of the I.O.C.’s total budget, did not respond to a question about whether it was confident it would be broadcasting an Olympics in which viewers could trust that the athletes they were watching would be clean.

The multimillion-dollar Olympic sponsors — Visa, Airbnb, Coca-Cola and Intel — did not respond to messages seeking comment on whether they were concerned about linking their brands with a Games in which athletes have expressed concerns about cheating. Allianz, a German financial services company, also declined to comment.

The New York Times reported last month that WADA failed to follow its own rules after 23 elite Chinese swimmers all tested positive for the same banned drug in 2021, months before the last Summer Olympics. The drug — trimetazidine, known as TMZ — is a prescription heart medication, but it is popular among athletes looking for an advantage because it helps them train harder, recover faster and quickly moves through the body, making it more difficult to detect.

Two days after the Times article was published, WADA’s president, Witold Banka, and other top officials from the agency held a news conference during which they said they had no choice but to accept the explanation provided by China’s antidoping agency for the positive tests. The Chinese agency claimed that all of the swimmers had inadvertently ingested the drug because they ate food from a kitchen contaminated by TMZ.

In the days that followed, WADA published a lengthy document that again tried to explain its decision.

But neither move satisfied athletes, sports officials and antidoping officials perplexed by WADA’s apparent unwillingness to pursue its own investigation of the positive tests. Within days of the news becoming public, however, WADA appointed a special prosecutor, Eric Cottier, to review its handling of the case.

That decision, too, quickly drew criticism.

Mr. Cottier is a former attorney general of Vaud, a Swiss region that has become the center of international sports, and that is home to several sports organizations, including the I.O.C. But interviews showed that Mr. Cottier had been nominated to lead the investigation by the WADA official who was in charge of auditing the agency’s intelligence and investigations department at the time the Chinese swimmers tested positive.

The auditor, Jacques Antenen, served as Vaud’s police chief under Mr. Cottier when he was Vaud’s attorney general. In a telephone interview on May 3, Mr. Antenen said he had contacted Olivier Niggli, WADA’s most senior administrator, in the days after the disclosure of the positive tests to suggest that Mr. Cottier might be a good choice to lead the investigation.

“I didn’t recommend him; I just said if you need someone, it’s a good choice,” Mr. Antenen said. He said he did not know if others had been considered for the role.

Regardless of Mr. Cottier’s abilities and qualifications, his physical proximity to figures close to WADA, the I.O.C. and the sports movement are problematic, governance experts said.

Mr. Cottier and Christoph de Kepper, the I.O.C.’s director general, were among the people who celebrated Mr. Antenen’s retirement from the police force at a party in 2022. The I.O.C. contributes half of WADA’s annual $40 million budget.

The celebration, which was featured in the police service’s in-house magazine, was first reported by The Associated Press. A caption with a picture of two of the men in the magazine reads, “Attorney General Eric Cottier came to greet his old friend Jacques Antenen.”

A WADA spokesman, James Fitzgerald, said his agency had, in fact, contacted Mr. Antenen first, to ask “if he knew of someone with the requisite credentials, independence and availability to carry out a thorough review of WADA’s handling on this case.”

“These attempts to slur the integrity of a highly regarded professional just as he begins his work are getting more and more ridiculous and are designed to undermine the process,” Mr. Fitzgerald said.

There are also new questions about WADA’s public statements related to the appointment of Mr. Cottier. In a statement to The Times, WADA said it had discussed Mr. Cottier’s appointment with its board before formally appointing him to the role.

But Dr. Gupta’s Office of National Drug Control Policy said in a statement that shortly before the formal announcement of Mr. Cottier’s hiring in April, WADA told its board an investigator had already been chosen.

Dr. Gupta said in his letter to WADA that he was “deeply concerned” that the executive committee “was not adequately briefed with essential information throughout this process.”

Current and former athletes are now asking for more testing worldwide heading into the Paris Games, but they acknowledged that their concerns about the global antidoping regulator are unlikely to be allayed in time for the opening ceremony.

Ms. King, the American swimmer, said that when she learned of the undisclosed positive tests, she felt as if this were a replay of her experience from the 2016 Rio Olympics, when she won a gold medal in the 100-meter breaststroke over a Russian swimmer, Yulia Efimova, who had failed a drug test earlier that year but was allowed to compete after the result was overturned on appeal.

Katie Meili, an athlete representative on U.S.A. Swimming’s board of directors and the bronze medalist in that race behind Ms. King and Ms. Efimova, said athletes had “put a ton of faith in WADA.”

“Yes, the positive tests are a concern, and that’s a bad thing,” she said. “But even more concerning to me is that the international regulator is not doing their job.”

Amy Chang Chien contributed research.

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