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Swimmer Michael Phelps says China doping scandal threatens the Olympic movement

Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympic athlete of all time, testifies Tuesday on Capitol Hill during a Congressional hearing on Oversight and Investigations. Lawmakers discussed anti-doping measures ahead of this year's Paris Summer Olympics.
Rod Lamkey
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AP
Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympic athlete of all time, testifies Tuesday on Capitol Hill during a Congressional hearing on Oversight and Investigations. Lawmakers discussed anti-doping measures ahead of this year's Paris Summer Olympics.

Legendary Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps told a U.S. House panel Tuesday night that the Olympic Games may unravel if sports doping is allowed to continue.

"If we continue to let this slide any farther, the Olympic games might not even be there," Phelps testified.

The session followed revelations in recent weeks that top Chinese swimmers scheduled to compete next month at the Paris Summer Olympics tested positive repeatedly for performance enhancing drugs.

The World Anti-Doping Agency known as WADA acknowledges some elite Chinese swimmers tested positive for two banned substances over a period of years.

The results of the tests were kept secret and the athletes were allowed to compete in 2021 at the Tokyo Summer Games.

According to U.S. officials, eleven of those Chinese athletes have now qualified for China’s national team and are expected to again swim head-to-head against U.S. athletes in Paris.

Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympic athlete ever with 28 medals including 23 gold, retired after swimming in the 2016 Summer Games. He told lawmakers sweeping reforms are needed to the international system that's meant to catch cheaters.

"Right now people are just getting away with everything," he said. "How is that possible? It makes no sense. I’m one [who believes] if someone does test positive, I’d like to see a lifetime ban."

Officials with WADA have denied any wrongdoing and say the Chinese athletes were accidentally contaminated with banned substances.

The doping officials haven’t provided a clear explanation how that happened repeatedly. Critics also say WADA officials violated international sports rules by not disclosing the positive test results even if the exposures were accidental.

U.S. lawmakers say WADA representatives were invited to testify at yesterday’s hearing and declined.

Travis Tygart, head of the United States Anti-Doping Agency — which monitors and penalizes American athletes if they cheat — testified that WADA has failed for years to properly punish Chinese and also Russian sports teams that regularly use performance-enhancing drugs.

"Russia and China have been too big to fail in [WADA's] eyes and they get a different set of rules than the rest of the world does unfortunately," Tygart said.

Tygart and U.S. lawmakers also called for major reforms to WADA.

The 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics were also marred by a doping scandal after star Russian figure skater Kamila Valieva was allowed to compete despite a previous positive test for a performance-enhancing drug.

Kamila Valieva, of the Russian Olympic Committee, competes in the women's free skate program during the figure skating competition at the 2022 Winter Olympics, on Feb. 17, 2022, in Beijing. She was allowed to compete despite testing positive at an event before the Winter Games opened.
Natacha Pisarenko / AP
/
AP
Kamila Valieva, of the Russian Olympic Committee, competes in the women's free skate program during the figure skating competition at the 2022 Winter Olympics, on Feb. 17, 2022, in Beijing. She was allowed to compete despite testing positive at an event before the Winter Games opened.

Valieva was later disqualified but turmoil surrounding the incident has delayed the formal awarding of a team gold figure skating medal to the U.S. A medal ceremony for U.S. skaters is expected to finally take place during the Paris Games that open on July 26.

WADA officials have rejected calls for reforms and say they have handled cases involving Chinese and Russian athletes fairly.

The Chinese doping scandal continues to escalate just weeks before athletes from around the world travel to Paris.

Allison Schmitt, a U.S. swimmer with four Olympic gold medals, testified Tuesday that American athletes have lost confidence that these Summer Games will be fair.

"There is no trust," Schmitt said. "What we ask for is that trust, for accountability, and transparency."

Schmitt herself swam with a U.S. relay team that lost the gold to China at the Tokyo Olympics.

Some of the Chinese swimmers who won that race are among the athletes who secretly tested positive for banned substances.

Schmitt said the fear that she and her teammates might have "been robbed" unfairly of Olympic gold is painful.

"We just want fairness in sport," Schmitt told lawmakers. "I hope I can have children in sport who know they're competing on a fair playing field."

Copyright 2024 NPR

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Brian Mann is NPR's first national addiction correspondent. He also covers breaking news in the U.S. and around the world.