Controversy over doping scandal in China

In past years, when Chinese athletes have been accused of doping, the government has mobilized its propaganda machines – state newspapers, television commentators and social media accounts – to defend the athletes and deflect criticism of China’s sports system.

This time, faced with anger from rival Olympians and accusations of a cover-up over revelations that 23 top Chinese swimmers tested positive for banned substances before competing in the 2021 Olympics, China is taking a different approach: virtual silence.

While the issue has been widely debated abroad, including in parliament last week, media coverage in China has been limited to a few brief official statements. Censors have been scrupulous in removing and restricting online discussion of the controversy, a level of censorship that experts say is unusual for all but the most politically sensitive topics.

Experts say the change in tactics reflects the crisis China faces just weeks before the start of the Paris Olympics. Eleven of the 23 swimmers who have tested positive in 2021 are on the national team heading to Paris. Swimming is one of China’s most-watched sports, and Beijing has invested heavily in it for decades in a bid to turn the country into an Olympic power.

China denies the allegations of cheating. The country has long sought to clean up its sport and has stepped up testing after doping scandals in the 1990s and early 2000s. So the cover-up allegations are a huge embarrassment for a country where sport plays a major role in promoting the Communist Party’s image.

“There has been basically no media coverage of this case in China, which is very different from previous cases where other Chinese athletes have been accused of doping,” said Haozhou Pu, an associate professor at the University of Dayton who studies Chinese sport.

Poo said authorities likely want the incident, reported by The New York Times in April, to die down before the Olympics begin and not become a distraction for the Chinese people or the Chinese swimming team. That could be the reason for China’s muted response, he said.

“No news may be good news,” Poo said.

When China’s most famous swimmer, Sun Yang, was accused of doping in 2018, state media The fairness of the investigation was examined and Extensive coverageand Social Media Users Hundreds of thousands of comments were allowed to be left expressing support for Son.

By comparison, state media coverage of the 23 swimmers has been largely limited to official comments. Chinese authorities have blamed traces of banned substances found in contaminated food for the swimmers’ positive tests in 2021, but some experts have questioned that explanation. The swimmers themselves have not commented publicly.

Chinese media reported a statement from China’s Foreign Ministry saying the country has a zero-tolerance policy against doping, and from China’s anti-doping agency, the China Anti-Doping Agency, which disputed the Times’ reporting and accused it of violating “media ethics and morality.” The only exception was an editorial in the Communist Party newspaper, the Global Times, which accused rival countries of deliberately “manipulating the doping issue” and “smearing China’s swimming program.”

Discussion of the incident also appears to be heavily censored on Weibo, a Chinese social media platform similar to X. Searches for terms such as “doping,” “drug testing,” “banned substances,” “swimming doping,” and “Chinese swimming team” bring up posts of Chinese news articles, mostly uniformly featuring official statements from the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the China Anti-Doping Agency.

As recently as 2022, internet censors allowed Weibo users to support Olympic weightlifting gold medalist Lu Xiaojun, who was suspended for doping, with many Chinese social media users accusing “Westerners” of framing Lu.

More notably, in 2012, Chinese state media came to the defence of Ye Shiwen, the teenage swimming sensation whose record-breaking victory in the 400m individual medley at the London Olympics drew allegations that she may have used performance-enhancing drugs.

Ye, who was 16 at the time, never tested positive, and many in China saw the allegations as outrageous, with China’s state broadcaster praising her for enduring “humiliation” at the hands of “mentally unstable Western media.” (Ye was not among the 23 swimmers who competed in Paris.)

Xiao Qiang, a China censorship expert at the University of California, Berkeley, said the level of censorship surrounding the current controversy over the 23 swimmers is comparable to that applied to discussion of much more sensitive topics, including the 1989 massacre of pro-democracy protesters at Tiananmen Square and elections in Taiwan, which Beijing claims as de facto independence, Xiao said.

He noted that this appears to be the first time that censors have completely banned online comments critical of an athlete suspected of doping, although critical comments have been overlooked in the past, such as Sun, a controversial figure who some Chinese internet users have deemed arrogant and deserving of a doping ban.

The scandal comes at a bad time for China’s top sports agency, the General Administration of Sport of China, which oversees the Chinese Olympic Committee. China announced in May that its former head, Guo Zhongwen, was under investigation for corruption.

China’s official explanation for the positive tests is likely to raise questions from Chinese citizens about how well its swimming association is managing its athletes.

Chinada alleges that 23 swimmers were unknowingly contaminated with traces of a banned substance called trimetazidine (TMZ), a drug used to treat heart patients and that also helps athletes increase stamina and speed recovery time. Chinada said the swimmers ingested TMZ through contaminated food from hotel kitchens. He did not explain how the drug ended up on the athletes’ tables.

Citing protocol, U.S. officials and other experts said the athletes should have been suspended pending further investigation or their identities made public. They blamed Chinese sports officials, World Aquatics, swimming’s international governing body, and the Montreal-based World Anti-Doping Agency, which oversees countries’ drug-testing programs, for failing to do so.

Last month, The Times revealed that three of the 23 swimmers had tested positive for other performance-enhancing drugs several years earlier. They also had avoided being identified or suspended.

WADA confirmed that the swimmers tested positive for “trace amounts” of a banned substance called clenbuterol, which is commonly found in meat in some countries, including China, and is also thought to help build muscle and burn fat. WADA said the three swimmers were exposed to contaminated food but did not explain why China did not comply with rules requiring it to make positive tests public.

Olivia Wang and John Liu Contributed report.

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